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Japan's opposition Democrats pick new chief to start rebuilding

Dissolving lower house caucus exposed liberal-conservative rift

Kohei Otsuka, the Democratic Party's new chief.

TOKYO -- Japan's opposition Democratic Party has taken its first step forward after an October election with the selection of a new chief. Yet the path to revival appears treacherous for a party that has lost its lower house presence to a breakup.

After assuming the mantle of party chief Tuesday, upper house lawmaker Kohei Otsuka made it clear that cooperation is the only way forward.

"In Japan's next general election, the liberal opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's conservative Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, and the depleted Democrats must all band together to oust the current ruling bloc from power," he told a meeting of his remaining party mates.

Those parties "will not reorganize or merge right away," Otsuka told a news conference later in the day. "Rather, each must proceed independently" and gradually "build up trust" with the others as the next election approaches, he said.

Still divided

The party still remains divided among lawmakers of different political stripes. Those fault lines were first laid bare in October's lower house Diet election. Then-Democratic chief Seiji Maehara tried to engineer a merger with the Party of Hope by urging members to run under its banner, while liberal Democrats at odds with Koike on such issues as national security instead formed their own party, the Constitutional Democrats. The Constitutional Democrats went on to win 55 seats, becoming Japan's largest opposition party.

The process of choosing a new leader forced the remaining Democrats to confront these divisions yet again. Otsuka drew support from the party's conservative wing, as well as from lawmakers with roots in the private-sector labor movement.

But more liberal lawmakers and those with ties to public- and private-sector unions backed candidates including former Democratic chief Renho and upper house legislator Toshio Ogawa, fearing Otsuka and his followers were mounting a secession attempt. But Renho and Ogawa ultimately decided to let Otsuka take the lead, fearing a full-scale election for party chief could split the bloc, according to a party official in the upper house.

Bridging gaps

Rebuilding the party rests on finding common ground between liberal and conservative Democrats. Otsuka's supporters hurried to assure their peers Tuesday that no secession attempt was in the works. "I have no intention of breaking up the party," Otsuka himself said at a news conference. Appointing a new leadership slate will be the chief's first chance to unify his party, though he has offered no specifics on that process, telling reporters only that he is working with "a blank slate at this stage."

The next challenge will be joining hands with Hope and the Constitutional Democrats heading into regional and upper house Diet elections in 2019. "A strong alliance will be critical," said Rikio Kozu, head of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, the country's largest labor organization. Better known as Rengo, the group is the Democratic Party's top outside backer.

But there remains significant rancor between former Democratic-turned-Hope lawmakers and the Constitutional Democrats after October's election. Though Otsuka has said the two groups are "equidistant" from the current Democratic Party, a number of Democrats are pushing for an alliance with the Constitutional Democrats, given that party's success at the polls. But leader Yukio Edano, himself a former Democratic leader, has made it clear he is leery of another political reorganization. Hope, meanwhile, is still in turmoil following its disastrous election performance, and is in no position to form alliances or reorganize.

And while the Democratic Party itself has chosen to remain in existence for the time being, it is not yet clear whether the party will even field candidates for the next upper house race. According to some members, the diminished bloc has little chance of sticking around long enough to do so.


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