Japan’s main opposition party elects first female leader

Former model Renho Murata presents new challenge to popular PM Shinzo Abe

Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s dominance over Japanese politics is under threat for the first time since 2012 after the main opposition party elected a charismatic former TV star as its new leader.

Renho Murata – who goes by her first name, Renho – swept to victory with 503 votes out of 849 in the Democratic Party's electoral college.

Born to a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, the 48-year-old Renho is the first person of mixed-ethnic heritage to lead a big political party in Japan, and has sought to cast herself as a voice for the country's younger generation.

She is also the first woman to lead Japan’s main opposition party.

Renho's victory follows Yuriko Koike's election as governor of Tokyo and Tomomi Inada's appointment as defence minister. All three are seen as symbols of cultural change with the potential to become Japan's first female prime minister.

Wearing her trademark white suit, Renho said the road ahead would be difficult as she competes against a popular Abe administration. But she declared: “Our goal now is to become the ruling party.”

The Democratic Party has been in the doldrums since it lost to Mr Abe in 2012 after a disastrous spell in office, marred by economic weakness, foreign policy confusion and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

It has just 8 per cent in the opinion polls, compared with 40 per cent for Mr Abe’s Liberal Democrats, after the prime minister’s latest stunt – dressing as the video game character Super Mario at the Rio Olympic closing ceremony – boosted his popularity.

Twitter following

Renho is seen as one of few politicians who can compete with Mr Abe for attention. She has 400,000 followers on Twitter and won more votes than any other candidate in the Tokyo district in this summer’s upper house elections.

She was elected to parliament in 2004 after working as a model and a TV newsreader. Renho attracted attention as minister for government revitalisation from 2010 to 2012 by launching pointed critiques of Japan’s bureaucracy.

Renho’s signature issue is support for young families, including free pre-school and higher pay for nursery teachers, but she is regarded as fairly centrist on policy. She opposes nuclear power; is in favour of trade deals in principle but against the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and is open to some revision of Japan’s constitution.

Her campaign was marred by a row over her ancestry, with some Democratic MPs calling for her to quit the race after it emerged that she has not formally renounced her Taiwanese citizenship. Japan forbids dual nationality.

Her wobbly handling of the issue – changing position several times only to be confronted with past statements – led some Democratic Party rivals to argue she will be an easy target for attacks by Mr Abe and the LDP.

But in the end she won a clear victory, winning majorities from among MPs and local elected officials, with especially strong support from the party’s grass roots supporters.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016