Potential change of power intrigues foreign correspondents

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo News

Foreign journalists in Japan are closely following Sunday’s general election and are ready to cover the expected end of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s long grip on power.

“This election is interesting because there is a possibility of a big change in Japan,” said Monzurul Huq, a Tokyo correspondent for the Prothom Alo daily in Bangladesh. “The public mood is in favor of change.”

Foreign correspondents are preparing for a possible change of government by introducing to their countries the little-known Yukio Hatoyama, Democratic Party of Japan president, as most polls indicate he will probably become the next prime minister.

Huq, also president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, has covered all national elections in the past 15 years, and now senses a change in voters’ minds, especially after former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s “populist” policies left many people worse off and exacerbated social disparities.

“The emergence of social difference, the rich and poor, and falling out of the social system, these all together have an impact on people’s mind-sets . . . and (Japanese are) opting for change.”

In 2005, Koizumi turned the general election into a virtual referendum on his postal privatization plan and led his LDP to a landslide victory.

Philippe Mesmer of French newspaper Le Monde said the public mood has been changing since Koizumi’s policies hit rural areas more than urban districts.

“I was talking with a student the other day who said, ‘Look! In America we have change, we have (President Barack) Obama,’ ” he said. “Maybe some people say this time, why not in Japan?”

Both Huq and Mesmer said Japan is unique as a democratic nation in which a single party has stayed in power for more than five decades, with only a short interlude from 1993 to 1994.

For Mesmer, Sunday’s election will be the third he has covered in Japan, and he thinks a spell in opposition for the LDP may be a good opportunity for the party to “reform” itself.

“Japan never really fully used its democratic capabilities. That’s different (from France),” he said.

“I feel Japanese are quite free in a way, but they never use their power as citizens.”

Ahead of his fourth national election in Japan, Peter Alford, a Tokyo correspondent for The Australian, a daily, said the election is considered important in Australia because of its trade and political relations with Japan.

“Politically, if the DPJ were to win a majority in its own right, I think the LDP might struggle to hold itself together,” he said, adding there might be some impact on Japan-Australia relations because the government in Japan changes “infrequently.”

Alford said he expects the story on the election to be carried on Monday’s front page of his paper.