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Japan's Liberal Opposition Turns to a Conservative Leader

Japan's largest opposition party has selected its candidate for prime minister, who is certain to be defeated when parliament convenes to vote for a leader on Wednesday. While the Democratic Party of Japan has no hope of achieving power right now, it is hoping its new president will move it closer to that goal after this month's huge electoral setback.

A young and relatively unknown face has suddenly emerged as the top opposition figure in Japanese politics. Seiji Maehara, who is 43, narrowly defeated a scandal-tainted former Democratic Party head on Saturday when the DPJ held a hastily called intra-party election.

Mr. Maehara replaces Katsuya Okada, who quit the top party post to take the blame for the DPJ's huge defeat in the September 11th election. The election gave Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party an absolute majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament.

When the parliament convenes Wednesday, Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Maehara will be nominated by their respective parties for prime minister. The incumbent is certain to be re-elected.

In the meantime, Mr. Maehara has wasted no time in promising major changes to his demoralized party. Mr. Maehara says he wants to lead the Democrats in a new direction, noting that many Japanese voters are not sure the opposition is ready to take political power.

He also says he will appoint party officials based on their skills, not on ideological and factional balances. He says the party, criticized for not having specific positions on issues, needs to set policies and make its views clearly known.

Mr. Maehara's ascendancy seems to close the door on a half-century-long era, during which the ruling LDP was conservative and the opposition was liberal, and the differences were plain to see.

Mr. Maehara is regarded as akin to a military hawk, and has clearly indicated he will push for constitutional revision, something pushed by conservatives in the LDP.

By modifying or scrapping Article 9 of its constitution, Japan could give its military, known as the Self Defense Forces, more freedom to engage in peacekeeping tasks - like those currently engaged in reconstruction in Southern Iraq - or even overseas combat. Such a move had been regarded as a political taboo in Japan until Mr. Koizumi came to power.

In the wake of its landslide election victory, however, the LDP-led governing coalition announced it would establish a special committee this week to discuss revising the constitution.