- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

TOKYO | Japanese voted in an election Sunday that is expected to give a landslide victory to an opposition party that wants to put the U.S.-Japan alliance on a more equal footing.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is poised to capture more than 300 of the 480 seats in the lower house of parliament, according to multiple opinion polls ahead of the vote. Such a result would give the party control of parliament and the right to choose the next prime minister.

If it happens, it will mark only the second time in more than half a century that Japan’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been kicked out of office by angry voters.

A string of gaffes and policy reversals by Prime Minister Taro Aso, plus job losses from the current recession, have led to a sharp fall in the LDP’s popularity. Polls overwhelmingly show the voters are in a mood for a change after decades of LDP-led rule. Except for an 11-month period in 1994, the LDP has controlled Japan since the party was founded in 1955.

“I have been an LDP supporter, but this time I voted for the [DPJ] because I want to see how things will change under a Democrat government,” Takeshi Yagi, a 39-year-old hairdresser in Tokyo who voted just after polling booths opened, told Reuters news agency. The first exit-poll results are expected after polls close (at 7 a.m. Monday in Washington).

Trying to cut the ruling party’s losses, Mr. Aso - whose support in the polls has sagged to a dismal 20 percent recently - called on voters in a final pitch Saturday to stick with his party, saying the Democrats are untested and unable to lead.

“Can you trust these people? It’s a problem if you feel uneasy whether they can really run this country,” Mr. Aso told a crowd outside Tokyo, according to the Associated Press.

Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama, 62, a Stanford University-educated engineer who is expected to become Japan’s next prime minister, said the election would change Japanese history.

“This is an election to choose whether voters can muster the courage to do away with the old politics,” Reuters quoted him as telling voters Saturday.

Mr. Hatoyama says Japan will not be relying so much on the U.S. for defense with his party in power. But exactly what defense and diplomatic policies such a government would follow remain somewhat murky.

In an article that appeared in the New York Times on Thursday, Mr. Hatoyama wrote that the Japan-U.S. security pact “will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy” but the East Asian region “must be recognized as Japan’s basic sphere of being.”

He also wrote that “as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end.”

Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University and former lieutenant general with the Japanese military, said the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea has limited the attractiveness of any change in the overall U.S.-Japan defense relationship.

About 50,000 U.S. troops are based in Japan, and the Japanese Democrats have suggested they might seek to revise the status-of-forces agreement that governs the U.S. military presence.

As the recession has deepened here, however, more pressing issues such as employment, the need to fund Japan’s pension system and care for an aging population have taken priority over security issues, analysts say.

As a result, a Democratic Party victory is not expected to bring major changes in Japan’s foreign policy, despite Mr. Hatoyama’s reformist oratory.

The Democratic Party says in its election platform that it seeks a “close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance to serve as the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy.” It also wants to expand the nation’s overseas roles in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

“The word ‘United Nations’ sounds good to Japanese people. So it has been useful to attract people’s attention, especially in elections,” said Mr. Shikata. “But the DPJ does not have specific plans.”

“How Japan forms its foreign policy depends largely on the U.S. The U.S., however, is not interested in Japan, as they are preoccupied with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and so on,” said Minoru Morita, a prominent political analyst. “Many Japanese people think the U.S. just wants Japan to buy their Treasury bonds.”

The Democratic Party has had difficulty coordinating its views on security and diplomatic matters, as the party has hawkish members as well as pacifists formerly of the Socialist Party, which led the government in 1994 that lasted only 11 months.

“The DPJ is trying not to talk so much about security and defense policy,” Mr. Shikata said. “The DPJ’s defense and diplomatic policies remain vague, as the party has left and right members and is likely to form a coalition government with the left-leaning Social Democratic Party.”

David Straub, a North Korea expert at Stanford University who accompanied former President Bill Clinton on his brief trip to Pyongyang earlier this month, said the new leadership may want to distinguish itself from its predecessors on North Korea.

“But it won’t change the fundamental opinion in Japan about the abductee issue,” he said.

North Korea’s abduction during the Cold War of Japanese nationals, many of whom remain unaccounted for, has put Japan in a more hawkish position toward North Korea than the U.S. or South Korea during both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Mr. Straub added that if the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea and Japan - partners in past six-nation talks with North Korea - remain “united and consistent in offering incentives and disincentives, the North Koreans may come back” to the negotiations.

North Korea has stressed its preference for bilateral talks with the United States but has been making conciliatory gestures since the Clinton visit.

Despite the Democratic Party’s obscure stances on some issues, Mr. Hatoyama is thought to favor eliminating a key pacifist clause in Japan’s constitution that limits its military activities overseas.

That is what Mr. Hatoyama’s grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, wanted. The elder Mr. Hatoyama was the first president of the LDP and an influential postwar prime minister.

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