Japan's bruised and humiliated opposition party picked a young conservative who wants a more assertive role for Japan's military as its new leader yesterday in a surprise decision aimed at healing the wounds from a crushing parliamentary defeat.
Seiji Maehara, 43, was chosen over charismatic but scandal-tainted veteran Naoto Kan, 58, in a razor-thin 96-94 vote by Democratic Party loyalists at a Tokyo hotel.
First elected to Parliament's lower house in 1993, Maehara gives a new face to a party that saw its standing tumble in last Sunday's election, unraveling impressive gains made in recent years against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Former party leader Katsuya Okada stepped down on election night to take responsibility for the defeat.
The Democrats were trounced in the Sept. 11 elections by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's LDP. With the Democrats' in the more powerful lower house of parliament dropping to 113 from 175, the polls delayed any hope for a two-party political system in Japan, and cast doubt on the opposition's ability to regroup and challenge again for control.
"The LDP is as dominant as any time in the past," said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think tank. "The question now is whether the damage to the DJP is fatal."
Maehara brings the party is a security expert and backer of a more assertive international military role for Japan. He has been designated the party's Defense Agency chief in the Democrats' shadow cabinet.
While Maehara offers the Democrats a new front man, his security views may cause a rift with more dovish members of his own party, some of who defected from the socialists and vehemently oppose the country's dispatch of troops to Iraq and other overseas missions.
"It's a little bit surprising," political analyst Shigenori Okazaki said. "The party has shifted very quickly away from someone who is very experienced toward someone who is young and can show future potential."
If Kan had won, it would have been his third time at the helm of the party he helped form.
The photogenic Kan entered politics in the 1970s as a consumer activist and soared to prominence in 1996 when he exposed a cover-up of an HIV-tainted blood scandal as health minister in a coalition Cabinet. He is considered the leader of the party's left-leaning wing.
At one point, he was Japan's most popular politician until a sex scandal edged him from the party's top position in 1999.
But Kan regained the post and led the party through stunning 2003 lower house elections that boosted the Democrats' ranks to 177 seats from 137, and shook the foundations of the rival LDP with nationwide talk of a legitimate two-party system. Kan resigned again last year, however, after admitting he'd missed payments into the national pension system for 10 months in the 1990s when he was health and welfare minister. That scandal threw the Democrats into disarray just two months before last year's upper house elections.
Okada was chosen to replace Kan after emerging as the only candidate for the job.