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Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012
Returning as DPJ chief will be the easy part
By JUN HONGO
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's re-election as president of the Democratic Party of Japan appears to be a lock, with party heavyweights including Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada and DPJ policy chief Seiji Maehara announcing their endorsements.
But analysts say the true challenge for Noda will be the uphill battle he will face after he beats out the three other candidates vying for his seat.
"It will be tough for the DPJ. Noda's re-election won't do much (to lift the party's) low support rate," political analyst Harumi Arima told The Japan Times.
Liberal Democratic Party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki said Monday he won't seek re-election as president of the top opposition when the LDP holds its election on Sept. 26, meaning the DPJ will go head to head against a revitalized LDP whose support rate already is double that of the DPJ in recent polls.
"Without Tanigaki, the LDP appears pretty confident with its chances," Arima said.
With both Environment Minister Goshi Hosono and former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka opting not to vie for the presidency in the DPJ's election set for Sept. 21, despite earlier rumors that they planned to run, Noda is now not expected to face a serious challenger.
One of the people who will run is former Cabinet member Kazuhiro Haraguchi, 53. A close ally of ex-DPJ don Ichiro Ozawa, Haraguchi has been critical of the Noda administration, including the consumption tax hike it pushed through the Diet last month.
Noda's unpopular legislative goals prompted dozens of DPJ members to defect, including Ozawa, Haraguchi said.
"No party has had this many members defect in such a short period," Haraguchi said, adding the current administration will face the consequences of splitting the party.
But with Ozawa and his close allies now out of the DPJ, Haraguchi is not expected to garner enough votes to threaten Noda.
Another candidate, former agriculture chief Michihiko Kano, 70, meanwhile ran in the last DPJ presidential election in 2011 but finished fourth. He and his supporters played a key role in Noda's victory over Banri Kaieda in the runoff vote.
Kano's supporters say the veteran politician will be able to unify rival DPJ groups, but many doubt he will be able to gain votes from the party's younger members.
In throwing his hat into the ring, another ex-farm minister, Hirotaka Akamatsu, 64, said Monday he will focus on building a "nuclear-free" Japan. The close ally of Ozawa has been critical of Noda over how the administration has bulldozed its policies through the Diet.
Beating out the challenge from the three lawmakers will be the first and possibly easiest test Noda will face. The true chore will be uniting his party before the next general election, which Noda could drag his feet in calling.
Even if Noda scores a landslide victory in the DPJ presidential race, many in his party, including the three other candidates, oppose his key goals, including hiking the consumption tax and joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
When Noda announced his candidacy Friday, he stated that he "can't leave key issues for the government unresolved." But if he continues to press for his goals despite the internal opposition, the rift in the DPJ will widen.
"A party needs to be led by a strong figure who can bring together its members, discuss the best policy and jointly push it forward. Unfortunately, all the candidates, including Noda, lack such characteristics," said Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus of political science at Keio University.
The DPJ may have a tough time uniting as the general election approaches, he said.
But the larger question will be whether Noda will be able to continue on as prime minister after the Lower House election. A Jiji Press survey last month showed the DPJ gaining only 6.9 percent of voter support, while the LDP led with 13.3 percent.
If Noda wins the DPJ presidential poll, his popularity may get a little boost, but that may be eclipsed by the amount of attention the new LDP chief will gain after that party's leadership race.
Tanigaki's decision to throw in the towel "makes it tough for the DPJ," Horie pointed out. Noda should expect to exchange blows with "a younger, revitalized LDP, which could increase voter support quickly."
Political analyst Arima meanwhile said Tanigaki's departure was predictable since he failed for three years to oust the DPJ-led government. The change in LDP leadership could have an impact on the three-party deal involving the DPJ, LDP and New Komeito in which Noda promised to dissolve the Lower House "soon," he added.
"The Noda administration could drag on and push back the general election," Arima said. "But whoever wins the party race, both the DPJ and LDP must be aware that they need to collaborate if they want to achieve anything in the Diet."