Former Japan vice-premier Katsuya Okada elected to lead main opposition Democratic Party

Japan's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), picked acting leader and former Japanese deputy prime minister Katsuya Okada as its new chief on Sunday, Jan 18, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Japan's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), picked acting leader and former Japanese deputy prime minister Katsuya Okada as its new chief on Sunday, Jan 18, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

JAPAN'S main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), picked on Sunday acting leader Katsuya Okada as its new chief.

Mr Okada, 61, beat 43-year-old former secretary-general Goshi Hosono in a closely-fought election at an extraordinary meeting of the party.

Mr Okada had served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister under a DPJ administration when the party was in power from 2009 to 2012.

The DPJ however was defeated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the 2012 general elections and has not recovered from the setback since.

Mr Okada's election signals the DPJ's resolve to mount a credible challenge against the LDP-led ruling coalition in the Upper House parliamentary elections that are due next year.

“I want to make the DPJ a party that the people believe can take responsibility for a change in government, and fight fairly and firmly with Abe’s LDP,” Okada told a party convention after his election to the post he held a decade ago.

A mix of former LDP members, ex-socialists and centrists, the DPJ surged to power in 2009 on a promise to focus on consumers rather than big firms and other vested interests. But the Democrats fell prey to policy flip-flops and internal strife, changing premiers three times in three years.

They were trounced in the 2012 election that returned the LDP's Shinzo Abe to office and made minimal gains in a snap election last December that saw the LDP-led coalition keep its two-thirds lower house majority, albeit with record-low voter turnout of 53.3 percent. Then-party leader Banri Kaeda lost his own seat.

Three candidates ran in the race to succeed him – centrist Okada, left-leaning former health minister Akira Nagatsuma, and Goshi Hosono, 43, the most conservative and youngest of the trio. 

All three had stressed the need to address widening economic disparities and welcome social diversity. They also criticised Abe’s efforts to recast Japan’s wartime past with a less apologetic tone, a stance that causes friction with China and South Korea.

Okada offered a 300-day party reform plan and a plan to demand Abe’s cabinet rescind its controversial decision to ease constitutional constraints on the military’s role abroad, Kyodo news agency said.

Critics worry Japan is returning to a pattern of one-party dominance, but the Democrats have not so far been able to tap into voter longing for an alternative to the LDP.

“The problem is the party has no shared core beliefs, has made no accounting for its miserable performance in government, and is unclear about what its policy priorities would be if it could take power again,” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis. 

wengkin@sph.com.sgADDITIONAL REPORTING BY REUTERS