Looking to the future DPJ presidential candidates Goshi Hosono (center), Akira Nagatsuma and eventual winner Katsuya Okada (left) at the Club before the election.

Following its recent leadership election, can the DPJ find a way to get the party’s mojo back?

On Jan. 18, the Democratic Party of Japan, a party suffering what might charitably be called “a bit of a rough patch,” selected a new leader. In a sometimes spritely, sometimes sullen race between three men representing three rather different visions of the party’s future, the DPJ ended up choosing a familiar face, 61-year-old former leader Katsuya Okada.

The DPJ had been seeking a way out of the doldrums. After an uneven three years in power, which included managing the response and recovery from the triple disaster of March 11, 2011, the party crashed from 209 seats to 57 in the snap election of Dec. 2012, surrendering control of the government to Shinzo Abe’s resurgent Liberal Democratic Party.

The DPJ’s final humiliation came in Abe’s snap election of last December. They were caught totally unprepared, with no candidates for half of the country’s electoral districts. With herculean last-minute efforts, the party eventually managed to present candidates in 178 of the nation’s 295 electoral districts. The DPJ ended up winning 73 seats, an improvement over its showing in 2012, but far below its target of 100+ and very far from shaking Abe’s grip on power. The party’s leader, Banri Kaieda, furthermore, failed to win either a district or a proportional seat, finally ousting him from the post so many in the party had wanted him to relinquish far earlier.

The party membership was confronted with questions more fundamental than simply who would fill the post Kaieda had vacated. What kind of party should the DPJ be? Who are its constituents? And what, if any, role does a political opposition play in Japanese politics?

The leadership election and the selection of candidates evolved out of an attempt to find answers for these questions. It also evolved out of the peculiar format of the DPJ’s leadership election. The rigorously organized, hierarchical LDP concentrates most of its leadership voting strength in its Diet members. The DPJ by contrast, has an open system, with participation by dues-paying members of the general public in the process. The party’s 226,000 registered members indeed provide the largest bloc of points (46.6 percent) in the DPJ’s points-based election system. Members of the Diet (34.9 percent) and DPJ prefectural assembly members (18.5 percent) provide the rest.

Candidates are therefore required to run national campaigns. Diet members are the gatekeepers of the process one cannot run without the sponsorship of 20 Diet members but candidates have to be credibly populist.

Goshi Hosono, the young (43), handsome six-term member of the House of Representatives from Shizuoka, presented himself first. He advocated a tougher party stance on defense and security issues, while being less clear on his economic plans. Hosono also promoted himself as the candidate of the party’s future, calling for the party to cut itself off (ketsubetsu) from its legacy of failure.

Most controversial of his positions, was, however, his stance toward the revitalization of Japan’s political opposition. Faced with a situation in which the PM and his Cabinet enjoy a broad level of public support, Hosono advocated that the DPJ think about jettisoning a part of its autonomy, and consider working closely with, and possibly merging with, the next largest opposition force, the Japan Innovation Party of Kenji Eda and Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto.

Hosono could also count on the support of the local assemblymen and women, not a few of whom believed they would be better positioned in their races in the upcoming April local elections if they had Hosono’s handsome face on their posters.

The presence of a candidate from the party’s hardliner wing put pressure on the party’s centrist and left wings to offer their own candidates.

For a brief moment, House of Councillors member Renho, a child of a Taiwanese immigrant and a special target of LDP ire, offered herself as a candidate. The candidacy seemed a smart counter. A former model and newsreader, Renho could certainly hold her own in the looks competition. By selecting her, the DPJ could also improve on its abysmal record of promoting women from its ranks, and challenge the ground seized by Abe on the issue of empowering women. Renho pulled, however, when it became clear her candidacy would interfere with that of Katsuya Okada, who had already thrown his hat in the ring in the role of the party moderate.

The DPJ’s liberal members, many from the former Socialist Party, felt they had to run their own candidate, mostly for appearances’ sake, and support coalesced around former minister of health, labor and welfare, Akira Nagatsuma. A pensions specialist, he focused his campaign speeches on the increasing economic disparities under neoliberal economic reforms and the erosion of traditional constitutional concepts under the Abe administration’s program of changes to Japan’s security policies.

The press loved having the three candidates seemingly conforming to stereotypes: The Liberal, The Moderate and The Conservative. The candidates, however, were not cardboard cutouts.

Hosono, the “conservative,” expressed extreme reservations about the current government’s enthusiasm for nuclear reactor restarts, unsurprising given that he had been the state minister in charge of dealing with the aftermath of the disas-ter at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Nagatsuma, the “liberal,” was more than willing to open the sup-posed Pandora’s box of constitutional revision, albeit in order to write into the constitution liberal ideas like a right to privacy. And Okada, the “moderate,” showed no moderation as regards to two red-button electoral issues: raising the consumption tax and building a replacement facility for the Futenma Marines Air Station inside Okinawa Prefecture. Okada was vocally in favor of both, claiming that there were no reasonable alternatives.

Job #1 is simple: get voters feeling good about voting again

The three-candidate race was nevertheless a bit of a sham. Okada and Hosono had received the nods in equal proportion from giant industrial unions like UA Zensen, the Electrical Workers Union and the Japan Auto Workers. Nagatsuma was shunned, and had to beg support from the smaller civil servant unions like the Japan Teachers Union a tough sell given Nagatsuma’s history as a budget cutter.

In the final days it became obvious that Nagatsuma’s candidacy was going nowhere. His mere presence, however, was enough to prevent either Hosono or Okada from finishing with the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off. Which is why, in the last few days, a dark cynicism enveloped the Hosono camp.

Hosono’s followers knew that in a run-off, in which DPJ Diet members would be the only ones voting, Nagatsuma’s supporters would tilt toward Okada. Even though Hosono was the strongest candidate among the general membership and a big hit with the local assembly members, he could still lose.

In fact, there was a precedent: Shinzo Abe’s election in 2012. In a five-man LDP presidential race, policy wonk Ishiba Shigeru finished first in both the local chapters and total votes. However, in the second-round run-off of just Diet members, Abe’s better personal relations with his Diet peers carried the day.

Hosono’s team was right to worry. He won the first round on Jan. 18, trouncing Okada in the prefectural assembly voting, finishing a close second in supporters’ race and winning among Diet members. The second round vote, however, went to Okada, thanks to his ability to attract the votes of Nagatsuma supporters.

So, despite a less than staggering mandate, Okada has taken the reins. He has moved fast to consolidate his rule, giving rival Hosono the Number Three position of policy chief and Nagatsuma and Renho the party’s two Acting President posts. He has stated that he does not intend to work with the JIP unless the JIP changes and JIP founder Hashimoto’s response was that his party will likely find ways to cooperate with the ruling LDP. (There was probably never any real hope for DPJ-JIP cooperation. Hashimoto hates fellow Osakan and former Socialist Party star Kiyomi Tsujimoto, one of Okada’s closest allies and advisors during the campaign.)

Is a brighter future for the DPJ (and by extension Japan’s experiment in actual two-party democracy) even a possibility, given the ideological and personal divisions? It’s hard to be optimistic. The current situation in which a bloated LDP looms above a collection of pygmy opposition parties reflects the defects (or perhaps the excellence) of an electoral system geared to delivering victories to LDP candidates. It’s hard to beat a system which Japan’s Supreme Court has declared to be “in a state of unconstitutionality” incompatible with constitutional guarantees of equality before the law.

The results of the last four national elections, however, have pointed out the system’s weak point: voter turnout. In 2009, with nearly 70 percent of the electorate going to the polls, the DPJ scored a huge victory. In 2012, ten million voters abstained from voting, turnout plunged to 59 percent and the LDP waltzed to victory. In 2014, despite a weak economy and unpopular policies, the LDP hung on to power, aided greatly by a historical low turnout of 52 percent.

For the DPJ and the opposition, therefore, Job #1 is simple: get voters feeling good about voting again. The signs from the DPJ leadership election in this regard were positive. Okada is a notorious stiff (prior to the vote, LDP members confided to the press that they wanted Okada to win because of his history of dull earnestness). But he peppered his final pitch with self-deprecating humor that earned laughs from the room, and with the spunky Renho providing back up, he could get voters smiling, too.

More importantly, Okada also showed signs in his speeches of an understanding of the fundamental advantage opposition parties have over the LDP: a neutrality toward tradition.

Abe and the LDP, for all their talk of reform, are committed to preservation of a certain ineffable Japanese way of doing things. There is a Japanese style of agriculture, there is a Japanese style of capitalism, there is a Japanese style of family relations that the LDP wants to save.

The historian S. C. M. Paine, looking at the differing fates of 19th-century China and 19th-century Japan, noted that while the reformers of Meiji Japan merely had to concern themselves with saving their nation, Chinese reformers were trying to save an entire civilization. Though Shinzo Abe proudly calls himself a “man of Choshu” and thus an heir to the Meiji reformers, his party and its many special interest friends have until now been much more redolent of the Chinese example slow to respond unless forced, unwilling to change the status quo, suspicious of the ideas invented elsewhere wanting to preserve the Japaneseness of Japan.

If Katsuya Okada and the DPJ can project a revitalized Meiji spirit, presenting the voters with a message of change without prejudice, and with national salvation as the only goal, he will have a paradigm to oppose the currently overbearing LDP and find an answer to the Tokyo Shimbun’s question that ran as a headline the day after the Jan. 18 election: “How can they dispel the people’s sense of disappointment?”

Michael Cucek is a Tokyo-based consultant to the financial and diplomatic communities and author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society.