On Monday, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) selected Yoshihiko Noda as its next president. Noda will replace the embattled Naoto Kan, who resigned last Friday, as Japan's prime minister. He is assuming the post at what is arguably the most difficult time in Japan's postwar history. It is an open question whether he will be able to lead.

Noda, 54, emerged this summer from a crowded field of five DPJ candidates. The campaign leading up to the presidential election, which would usually have taken a week or more, was compressed into a few days by Kan's resignation and the impending end to the regular Diet session. Prior to the voting, there was little time for a policy debate and none for outreach to the Japanese public. The two televised debates among the candidates produced a bland rehash of internal party business that highlighted the personal rivalries that have handicapped the DPJ since it took power.

One prominent question, for example, was the role of Ichiro Ozawa, the former DPJ party leader under criminal investigation for campaign financing malfeasance. Ozawa was barred from holding party positions while under indictment, but he still has many supporters, including some 120 party members, who Kan's successor would need to win over to lead the country.

A second focal point was the recently negotiated agreement between the DPJ and its fiercest political rivals over the legislative process. The agreement reached after much haggling between the DPJ and two opposition parties broke Japan's legislative logjam. The opposition agreed to allow the passage of a post-earthquake reconstruction budget and a bill on developing renewable energy sources in return for the DPJ's abandonment of some social subsidies for families with children, high school tuition waivers, and lower highway tolls. These compromises angered many, and simmering resentments will continue to haunt the party.

In addition, the hurried selection process excluded local DPJ members and supporters. Last year, it was Kan's popularity among these members that allowed him to overcome Ozawa's influence among parliamentarians and win his bid for party presidency. After being left out of selecting the next prime minister, those members now feel alienated. The political adversity is compounded by the public's general disaffection with Tokyo after the March 11 disasters. Japan's new prime minister will need to assuage the fears and suspicions directed at Japan's central government institutions, from those left homeless along the country's northeastern coast to those living around nuclear reactors.

If Noda is to lead Japan, he will need to stitch together a frayed party and a fractured public. In brief remarks to DPJ colleagues prior to the runoff vote on Monday, Noda asked them to set aside their differences and personal feuds in order to attend the nation's business. He pointed out that the Japanese public calls for party unity and a commitment to solving the nation's problems. During the speech, he exuded confidence and quiet purpose, leaving little doubt that Japan had found its next prime minister.

Noda's heartfelt and blunt appeal to his fellow party members is only a start, however. He will also need to bring together those in the opposition party to make headway on the complex and difficult agenda facing Tokyo. Japan must revamp its economy to retain its competitiveness, and it must do so against a backdrop of global economic unpredictability. Meanwhile, Noda must seriously tackle Japan's growing fiscal imbalance, ensure nuclear safety and reorganize Japan's future energy mix, and build the social infrastructure to support the country's rapidly aging society. Add to that Tokyo's need to rebuild the country's ravaged northeast, which will likely cost upward of $300 billion.

Noda must also attend to Japan's diplomatic needs. One of the greatest challenges faced by the DPJ after it won in the 2009 lower house election was coping with the relentless pace of foreign policy choices. Yukio Hatoyama's cabinet stumbled badly over its management of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and last fall the Kan government dissembled in the face of pressure from a combative China after an incident between a Chinese fishing trawler and the Japanese coast guard. Both of these relationships will continue to demand attention, and Noda will need to work to ensure Japan's strategic edge at a time of considerable fluidity in Asian international relations. Every one of Japan's neighbors will hold elections or undergo leadership transitions next year, making the coming months a time for carefully calibrated and sensitive diplomacy.

With an unstable domestic political situation and a policy agenda that could overwhelm even the most united of governments, the question is whether Noda can provide the depth of political leadership Japan requires. In the months following the March 11 disasters, everyone but Japan's politicians demonstrated their ability to cope with the crises. Private sector initiatives, nongovernmental organization activism, and local government leadership in Tohoku and beyond were conspicuous. In stark contrast, the nation's lawmakers seemed immobilized, except when bickering among themselves, earning them nothing but contempt from a citizenry that sought national unity.

Thus, Noda's first task is to restore confidence in Japan's government and bring the nation's politicians back to the task of governing. In the past few days, he has projected the persona that many Japanese -- and apparently many within the DPJ -- seem to be looking for. His personal style is thoughtful but low-key, and he is a consensus builder by nature. He is a moderate overall, but within the center-left DPJ, his views on national defense and foreign policy issues tend to be more realistic. This will make it easier for him to work across party lines with Japanese conservatives, and it will make him a reassuring partner for alliance managers in Washington.

Still, the rapid turnover of Japan's political leaders has weakened its ability to grapple with pressing decisions. The country's drawn-out political transition away from single-party dominance fragmented its leaders. It made the politics of coalition building an end rather than a means to establishing support for solving the nation's problems. Noda's most difficult hurdle remains within his own party. In his speech yesterday, he poignantly asked his party to choose a leader not simply for the party but for the nation. He implored party members to put away past differences and personal loyalties and join him in leading Japan out of its current difficulties.

Noda's message resonated strongly among the Japanese public. Let's hope that his fellow DPJ legislators take the nation's needs as firmly into account.

 

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