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Party revival job No. 1 for Japan's opposition leader

Renho, second from left, will have her work cut out for her.

TOKYO -- For all the spotlight lavished on Renho as a photogenic new opposition leader, she stands to get little help in reviving the unpopular Democratic Party.

Speaking after her victory in the party election Thursday, Renho pledged to offer constructive policy alternatives instead of simply attacking the ruling coalition. "We need to stand up against the giant ruling coalition," she said. "Instead of criticizing, we will make proposals."

Renho won the party election by a landslide with 503 of the 849 available points in a system that reflects votes from party members as well as lawmakers in prefectural assemblies and the Diet. Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara won 230 points, and lawmaker Yuichiro Tamaki won 116.

Renho, who goes by one name, is the first woman to lead the party or its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan. She will hold the post through September 2019.

She also promised to closely examine the second supplementary budget for fiscal 2016 ahead of parliamentary discussions in the Diet session starting Sept. 26. "I will lead a debate that examines multiple options on how to best use government resources," she said.

Renho has slammed Abenomics as a policy that depends on people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. She instead calls for a kinder society where Japanese lift each other up, relying on such policies as investing in people through child care, education and other means, and ensuring a stable job environment.

She has also assailed the national security legislation passed last year as unconstitutional. She plans to push alternative bills compiled by the Democratic Party, such as legislation governing "gray zone" situations that fall short of a direct attack on Japan.

Renho is also open to the debate over constitutional amendments, which former Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada was hesitant to join. She warns the ruling coalition against speeding through the discussion and has repeatedly said she will take an active part in any commission the government decides to set up on the issue. She will also consider calling for the creation of a partywide consensus.

The Democratic Party has been divided on the constitution even since its days as the DPJ. Renho has promised to defend Article 9, the core of Japan's war-renouncing charter. She is eyeing a change regarding municipal governments but faces a difficult task uniting her party's opinion.

She is also pressed to make a decision on the Democratic Party's partnership with the Japanese Communist Party. Byelections for two lower house seats are coming up in October. Renho stated plans to maintain the parties' basic framework but has said many times that she is not aiming for a coalition government with the Communist Party. Throughout her campaign, she did not provide details on what she saw to keep and what to scrap from her predecessor's approach.

The Communist Party is willing to work with the Democratic Party in the October polls by backing the same candidates, as it did in single-seat districts for the upper house elections in July. Some Democratic Party members planning to run in the next lower house race are also banking on Communist Party supporters. But the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, the Democratic Party's biggest support group, is averse to further cooperation. Opinions within the party are divided as well.

The controversy over Renho's dual citizenship could also come back to bite her. She initially claimed to have given up her Taiwanese citizenship when she became a Japanese citizen but announced before voting that this was not actually the case. Even members of her own party questioned her leadership and crisis management skills, given her changing explanation.

Junior opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai is considering submitting a bill to prohibit those with dual citizenship from becoming lawmakers. Renho's citizenship could become a frequent topic at Diet sessions.

Approval ratings for the Democratic Party have remained at about 10% since its creation in March. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party commands about 40% support.

"Without trust, we won't get the approval," Renho told reporters Thursday.

From model to opposition leader

"It's incredible how Renho stays true to her image in any photo or video taken of her," a fellow female lawmaker said. The new Democratic Party leader, who almost always wears a white suit, has roughly 400,000 followers on Twitter -- double that of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. Her stump speeches attract some of the biggest crowds of all politicians.

She was born to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother. Her Taiwanese grandmother insisted that her name include the character for "lotus flower," ren, which is a symbol for peace. Renho was chosen as a poster girl for car audio products maker Clarion while in college and eventually became a news presenter.

She has 19-year-old twins with her husband, who is a freelance journalist. She used to wake up early each morning to pack lunch for the kids, time she now spends jogging instead. She actively tweets about her children, pets and other aspects of her life and replies often to her followers.

But her candor has at times caused trouble. She received flak for questioning why Japan needed the world's fastest supercomputer while she was serving on a budget panel, back when the DPJ was in power. She said she was only trying to clarify why taxpayers' money should be spent on the project.

Recently, she called Okada a "boring man" in what she claimed was a joke. She ended up apologizing to Okada that day, and also admitted that she strongly regretted the comment after an online backlash. Her explanation of her dual citizenship also changed multiple times.

"It's important to always back your arguments, not be overly optimistic, disclose all information and be sincere in front of the people," Maehara said in his last speech before the vote. "I hope Ms. Renho will learn from my mistakes if she becomes the party leader."


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