TOKYO — Japan’s main opposition party elected its first female leader Thursday, with Renho Murata triumphing over two men to head the left-of-center Democratic Party.
Murata will now face the task of reinvigorating an opposition largely viewed as being in disarray and unable to convincingly take on the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has held power for all but four of the past 61 years.
“I pledge to take the heavy responsibility and to lead the rebuilding of our party into one people will be sure to choose,” Murata — commonly known by just her given name, Renho — said Thursday after winning the leadership. “We will confront the huge and popular ruling party, and fight fairly, not with criticism but with our ability to make proposals, with imagination and with our ideas on how the country should be.”
She has promised to lead a “revolutionary party” that will provide strong opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP. The mother of twins, Murata has also vowed to provide free preschool child care in a country where women find it difficult to hold full-time jobs because of child-care demands.
Murata, a 48-year-old former news anchor who has served in the upper house of parliament for 12 years, won in a landslide, with 503 out of 849 votes. The other contenders, former party leader Seiji Maehara and relative unknown Yuichiro Tamaki, received 203 and 116 votes, respectively.
Her victory is another boost for women, who are woefully underrepresented in Japanese politics. But the past few months have seen the election of Yuriko Koike as Tokyo’s first female governor and Tomomi Inada as Japan’s second female defense minister. (Koike was the first.)
Murata’s candidacy is rare not only because she is a woman but also because she is half Taiwanese.
Her campaign became mired in controversy when it emerged that she still had Taiwanese citizenship, after previously saying she had given it up — a potentially damaging revelation in a country that prizes homogeneity.
Murata was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father at a time when women were not allowed to pass on their nationality. She became a Japanese citizen in 1985 when the law was changed.
But it transpired that Murata retained her Taiwanese citizenship, meaning that she was breaking the law on dual citizenship after age 22 and sparking accusations that she could be beholden to Taipei.
“If Renho retains her Taiwan citizenship, she could become the target of undesirable suspicions regarding her relations with Taiwan,” the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, wrote in an editorial Thursday. What if Taiwan made a claim for the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan but disputed by China, the paper wondered.
The Democratic Party’s clout in the Diet, the Japanese parliament, is negligible. It controls only a fifth of the seats in each of its two chambers.
Murata will have her work cut out for her as leader. The Democratic Party has struggled to recover from a catastrophic three years in government that ended in 2012. The party’s leaders were strongly criticized for their response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and for raising taxes.