- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

A populist agenda that included aid for families plus an outpouring of anger over decades of economic stagnation propelled the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to a landslide win Sunday that approached a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The victory ended more than a half-century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which oversaw the country’s postwar rise as an economic superpower followed by an equally unprecedented period of near zero growth and rising unemployment.

The Democratic Party emerged from Sunday’s election with 308 seats in the 480-member lower house of parliament, which chooses the prime minister. The LDP lost 60 percent of the 300 seats it held in the outgoing parliament.

Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama, a Stanford-educated engineer who is set to become the next prime minister, called the election results a victory for the Japanese people.

“We had continued to fight this election for a change in government, as people wanted to change for their livelihoods,” Mr. Hatoyama said.

The Democratic Party wooed voters with a populist social agenda that included pro-family promises such as cash allowances for children and subsidized day care measures intended to boost Japan’s birthrate, which is among the world’s lowest.

The Democratic Party also pledged to reduce the influence of career bureaucrats, who in partnership with the LDP and big business made Japan the world’s wealthiest nation at the peak of the so-called “bubble” at the end of the 1980s.

But in the two decades since, the promise of steadily rising living standards faded as corporate downsizing drained consumer pocketbooks.

Masayasu Kitagawa, a former governor of Mie Prefecture who now directs a research institute at Waseda University in Tokyo, credits the Democratic Party with ambitious plans but warns that they will be difficult to implement.

“This is not a change within the existing framework, but they say they will change the nation’s system as a whole,” Mr. Kitagawa said.

“The year 2009 would be the year that 21st-century party politics would take hold in Japan,” Akikazu Hashimoto, a political science professor at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, predicted five years ago in his book on unaffiliated voters.

Except for an 11-month period in 1994, the LDP has ruled Japan since the party was founded in 1955. As a result, the accountability factor common in two-party politics in much of the industrial world remained largely absent in Japan.

Japan’s media reported a voter turnout at a record 69 percent Sunday, an indication of the level of public discontent with the outgoing government of Prime Minister Taro Aso.

“Because of the severe economic conditions in our region, people got more serious about the elections than ever. Many people had to accept deep pay cuts, and parents are worried about money needed for education of their child,” said Seiju Sugeno, a leader of a local farmers group in Nihonmatsu, 138 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Many in the region, like much of rural Japan a traditional stronghold of the LDP, voted for the opposition.

“The government abandoned the provinces,” said Sadaji Asawa, mayor of Otama Village in Fukushima Prefecture and chairman of the Association of Fukushima Towns and Villages. “It’s not too much to say that Japan’s provinces are collapsing.”

“Because the work force and local government finances were cut, there has been little to bolster domestic demand,” said Masaru Kaneko, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo. “It is easy to widen economic disparities, but it will take generations to close them.”

Mr. Hatoyama, the Democratic Party leader, pledged to place more responsibility in the hands of elected politicians rather than bureaucrats. His party platform calls for 100 members of parliament to take on top posts in government ministries responsible for drafting, coordinating and deciding policy positions now held by careerist technocrats.

Compared with the brief period of opposition rule in 1994, the Democratic Party “has some very experienced lawmakers, and they have been preparing for power for a long time. They are quite ready,” said Robert Pekkanen, chairman of the Japan Studies Program at the University of Washington at Seattle.

But the party also made some costly promises, such as a $275-a-month subsidy to families for each child through junior high school, toll-free highways and allowances for the unemployed enrolled in job training.

“They did what was appropriate for the opposition party. They just wanted to win,” said Mr. Pekkanen. “The problem is they are going to disappoint some people. They made some promises I don’t think they can keep.”

The Democratic Party’s promises also included a shift in foreign policy priorities, with pledges to develop an equal partnership with its No. 1 ally, the United States. It also pledged to seek closer ties with other nations in the region, such as China. But foreign affairs generally took second billing to economic issues.

Political analyst Minoru Morita said the Democratic Party is inheriting a terrible mess from the LDP, and he warned that it will be difficult for the new leaders to meet expectations.

“Though the recession has deepened, the DPJ has yet to recognize the country is in economic crisis. They have given little thought to economic recovery policy,” Mr. Morita said.

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