Japan opposition party picks conservative head to take on slumping PM Shinzo Abe

Presidential candidates for the Democratic Party Yukio Edano (left), a former chief Cabinet secretary, and Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister, shake hands following their press conference at the party headquarters in Tokyo on Aug 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan's biggest opposition party picked a new conservative leader on Friday (Sept 1) as it seeks to capitalise on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drop in popularity.

Former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, 55, beat the left-leaning Yukio Edano, 53, in an election for leadership of the traditionally centre-left Democratic Party. Reports say the photogenic former leader may seek an alliance with popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who is looking to expand her support base beyond the capital.

Riddled by infighting, the party has failed to present a coherent vision for the country since being turfed out of power by Mr Abe in a 2012 landslide after three years in government. Despite a recent fall in support over a series of scandals, Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is well ahead of the Democrats in the polls.

Mr Maehara's victory may now affect when Mr Abe calls the next national election, which is due by the end of 2018.

"An early election could be delayed with a Maehara victory," economist Koya Miyamae at SMBC Nikko Securities in Tokyo, wrote in an e-mailed note ahead of the vote.

In a Nikkei survey conducted this week, Mr Abe's LDP received support from 34 per cent of respondents, compared with just 4 per cent for the Democrats. More than 50 per cent said they supported no party.

The Democratic Party election was triggered by the resignation of former leader Renho, who generally goes by only one name, after she failed to smooth over internal clashes and oversaw a heavy defeat in the Tokyo local assembly election in July.

In a press conference this week, Mr Maehara called for an "all for all" redistribution policy that provides support for people on low wages and those struggling in regions outside the main urban areas.

The new leader is unlikely to help the party benefit from Mr Abe's dip in the polls, according to visiting scholar Jun Okumura at Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo.

"Maehara cannot lead the opposition to the promised land," he said. "Been there, failed to do that."

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