The Way Forward for the Democratic Party of Japan under Okada Katsuya

Itō Atsuo [Profile]

[2015.02.06] Read in: 日本語 |

Okada Katsuya was elected the new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan in January. He now faces the daunting task of rebuilding the DPJ as a viable alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party. This article looks at what Okada and other party leaders will need to do to accomplish that task.

Mismatched Debate Points

The Democratic Party of Japan held an election in January to choose a new leader to replace the outgoing head of the party Kaieda Banri. The DPJ members chose as their new leader Okada Katsuya, who defeated Hosono Goshi in a runoff. But the Japanese public greeted the election with indifference. That attitude stemmed from the fact that Okada and Hosono failed to debate core issues vital to setting the DPJ on a clear trajectory toward reform. Hosono, the party’s former secretary-general, established himself staunchly on the side of rebuilding political opposition to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but that move had the unintended effect of blurring the focus of debate. Hosono and Okada could have attracted greater public interest and signaled that the DPJ is on the path to change if they had locked horns and hashed out a new course for the party by clearly determining its policy platform.  

Another noteworthy point regarding the leadership election was the continued presence inside the DPJ of a strong liberal faction made up of ex-Socialist Party members. Almost a third of the party’s Diet members threw their support behind Nagatsuma Akira, who finished third in initial balloting. During the runoff, which was decided based on votes of sitting legislators, this group of largely socialist-leaning lawmakers backed Okada, carrying him to victory. The move has likely assured this faction a stronger voice in intraparty affairs. This will mean that Okada may find his hands restrained when setting policy on matters pertaining to revising the Constitution and national security.

This is not to say that the election was completely meaningless, however. Nagatsuma, for his part, helped to focus at least some attention on the growing gap between rich and poor in Japan. Recent opinion polls have also shown a steady uptick in the number of Japanese voters who would like to see the revival of the DPJ as a viable opposition party. And, perhaps most significantly, the specter of party breakup was largely dispelled by the leadership candidates declaring in one voice that the DPJ will remain unified no matter who is in charge.

Support for Okada in Doubt

Hosono is said to enjoy popularity among the general public as well as within the ranks of the DPJ. In contrast, Okada has struggled to find popular support and is dogged by his staid reputation as someone unwilling to budge from his own beliefs. However, there are certain periods where it is a somber politician like Okada that is exactly what people are looking for, so the only way to find out whether he is the best choice to head the DPJ is to provide him the chance to prove himself.

Talk of Okada’s leadership abilities continues to center on the 2005 lower house election. Under his watch the party received a drubbing at the hands of the Liberal Democratic Party, then led by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō, over the issue of privatizing Japan’s postal system. On the other hand, Okada’s ability to frankly put forward the party’s message allowed the DPJ to win ground at times, such as during the 2004 upper house election that centered on a proposed consumption tax hike. It would be wrong, then, to assume that Okada is too familiar to voters or behind the times to revive the popularity of the DPJ and rebuild the party. The success of those endeavors will hinge on the political and social circumstances.

Looking back, we can see the errors in the assumption that a political party will expand as long as it has a popular leader at the helm. The LDP was toppled from power after suffering a quick succession of ineffective prime ministers from 2006 to 2009, with Abe Shinzō, Fukuda Yasuo, and Asō Tarō each stepping down after roughly one year. Yet the three had enjoyed broad popular support around the time of taking office. In fact, such backing has no real foundation and is merely a general reflection of public expectation. The greater the hopes pinned on an individual, the greater the disappointment if the leader is not up to task.

Political parties should not blindly rely on their top candidate to shoulder the party, but rather work to expand that individual’s public backing. The case of Tony Blair is a prime example. Blair was an unknown when he started out in the lower ranks of the Labour Party, but recognizing his potential, the party spent a decade grooming him to assume the leadership. While at the helm, Blair succeeded in toppling the Conservative Party to become Britain’s prime minister. Here we see the wisdom of a bottom-up approach for cultivating leaders, instead of merely choosing from the upper echelons.

Establishing Shared Goals

Time will tell if Okada has the capacity to steer the DPJ to success, and there is no denying that he is starting off from a difficult position. He is faced with the daunting mission of forging a viable, long-term strategy to rebuild the party. Returning the DPJ to a position where it can again vie for leadership of Japan will likely take seven to eight years of persistent effort.

The first task for Okada will be carrying out broad intraparty dialogue to solidify the DPJ platform. As an opposition party, the DPJ must set distinct objectives, determine policies necessary to achieve them, and then present its platform to the public concisely and convincingly. Failing to establish a new paradigm will result in further infighting and stifle the party’s reconstruction efforts.

A British Model for Grooming Leadership

The DPJ must also work to cultivate the next generation of party leaders. Here, Britain’s Conservative Party serves as a valuable model. The party’s approach, at least until recently, was to recruit talented individuals fresh from university, firmly instruct them in the party line, and then run them as candidates in strong Labour districts. Following these races, the most promising candidates were sent to staunchly Conservative districts, where they easily won seats and began building experience. These individuals moved up the party ranks, becoming ministers or serving in influential positions while in their 40s and then contending for the top spot as prime minister in their 50s.

The DPJ purged itself in the aftermath of the party’s thrashing in the 2012 elections, whereas the LDP has seen its rosters swell to the point where new members are now unable to find districts to run in. If the DPJ hopes to attract top talent, it will need to instill young candidates with the resolve to endure three election cycles, even in the face of consecutive losses. In this sense, the DPJ must view the period ahead as a vital opportunity to secure its future prospects.

Bringing in a new pool of candidates could potentially strengthen party cohesion and reduce infighting by weakening the lingering influence of factions. One option is for the DPJ to use one-tenth of the around ¥7.7 billion it has at its disposal to create a think tank to develop strategies on key issues. Having hit rock bottom, the DPJ now has the opportunity of throwing caution to the wind and toying with new ideas.

Drawing Attention to the Party

The party system that had been in place since 1955 began to collapse when Hosokawa Morihiro became prime minister in 1992. This initiated a volatile political period that has since seen the creation and subsequent demise of over 50 political parties. One reason that may account for the failure of those parties is that they defined themselves too narrowly in terms of their opposition to the LDP.  

In the last general election, voters clearly shunned opposition parties pushing a political agenda resembling that of the LDP. But even the opposition parties that defined themselves as being “anti-LDP” are defining themselves in relation to that party. The way for the DPJ to rise from the ashes to become a true opposition force, it seems to me, is for the party to go beyond the framework set by the LDP and clarify its own political agenda. Okada and other party leaders must avoid limiting their perspective to the short term or getting bogged down by individual issues, and instead stay focused on determining what it will take to rebuild the party. 

The DPJ must start by taking a long, hard look at what occurred during the three years it was in power and determine for certain where and how it fell short. This task will not be easy, but it is the straightest road to recovery.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on January 26, 2015. Banner photo: Newly elected DPJ head Okada Katsuya at a press conference in Tokyo on January 22, 2015. ©Jiji)

  • [2015.02.06]

Political analyst. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1948. Graduated with a degree in law from Gakushūin University. Worked at the head office of the Liberal Democratic Party for more than 20 years before helping form the New Frontier Party. Later held top positions within the Sun Party, the Good Governance Party, and the Democratic Party of Japan. Left the DPJ in 2001 and has been active as a commentator on radio and TV news programs. Published works include Kokka Hyōryū (A Nation Adrift) and Seitō hōkai (A Party in Collapse).

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