Katsuya Okada, new leader of Japan's opposition Democratic Party, faces daunting challenge

New leader of Democratic Party has to overcome ruling Liberal Democrats and the still-popular prime minister, Shinzo Abe

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 January, 2015, 12:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 January, 2015, 12:57am

The battle to head the opposition Democratic Party of Japan was a tough one for Katsuya Okada, who required a run-off vote before narrowly defeating Goshi Hosono on Sunday by 13 votes.

But the next task facing Okada is even more daunting: overcoming the political machine that is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the still-popular prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

"We are going to win the next House of Representatives election and seize the reins of power," Okada, 61, said at a press conference after his victory had been officially confirmed.

With just 73 members in the 475-seat Lower House of the Diet after December's general election, the task that Okada now faces is monumental.

"He has set his sights on the elections for the Upper House in 2016, but that's going to be a difficult task," admitted Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

"He is going to have to present a credible set of policies; he must keep the internal sniping to a minimum, and he somehow has to convince the public and the media that the DPJ is the future of the opposition - let alone a ruling party," he said.

"In the meantime, Okada and the DPJ will have to hope that things will happen that are not necessarily under Abe's control and therefore reflect badly on the government, the economy being one such area."

Achieving that while putting on a united front - and convincing former DPJ leader Seiji Maehara and others to desist from internal griping - would be a remarkable turnaround for a party that had promised a new era in Japanese politics when it scored a landslide victory in September 2009. Very quickly, the hopes of a nation that had put the party in power soured.

Yukio Hatoyama, who lasted less than nine months as prime minister after the DPJ's election victory, wasted a good deal of his political capital in a futile effort to close the US military base at Futenma in Okinawa. He was succeeded by Naoto Kan who was dealt a bad hand by having to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, but still failed to come across as leading the nation.

Replaced in September 2012 by Yoshihiko Noda , the DPJ suffered a crippling defeat in the election just three months later and Noda resigned. Banri Kaieda came in to steady the political ship for the next two years, but achieved little of note and was unable to raise the party out of the doldrums.

"The (DPJ) has been in dire straits, there's no secret about that," said David McLellan, a professor emeritus of postgraduate Asian Studies in Tokyo.

He added: "But the early days of the party's leadership and its potential have not been forgotten by the public, and, if it sticks to its original campaign and policy platforms, such as the unpopular consumption tax hike postponement, support for smaller businesses and low-income families, the party could see its followers swell."

That task now falls to Okada.

A former head of the party and one of its most seasoned politicians, Okada has a reputation for being deadly serious and painstakingly precise in everything that he does.

There are some, however, who think Okada takes his unbending principles a bit far, hence the unflattering rumoured nickname "Taliban".

A strong advocate of urgent reforms to Japan's childcare and pension systems, he also wants dramatic spending cuts to wasteful public projects.

But it is Okada's policies as foreign minster in Kan's cabinet that will be under scrutiny by Beijing and Washington.

A firm supporter of DPJ efforts to forge closer ties with the rest of Asia, apparently at the expense of Washington, Okada wrote a column in The New York Times in August 2009 that appeared to lay the blame for the woes of globalisation, capitalism and "the destruction of human dignity" squarely at America's door.

Additional reporting by Xinhua