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Historic sea change at polls product of frustrated public

by Alex Martin

For better or worse, history has been made.

The Democratic Party of Japan was headed Sunday evening to winning more than 300 Lower House seats, an unprecedented landslide for any political party in the postwar era.

The DPJ’s victory will fundamentally change the power structure in a country ruled almost uninterrupted by the Liberal Democratic Party for the last 54 years.

Experts say the often politically complacent public, frustrated by recent economic woes and grim prospects for Japan’s long-term future, finally decided it was time to give the opposition a chance.

The DPJ’s victory is widely seen as public retribution against the LDP, not outright support for the DPJ’s election pledges of fighting the bureaucracy and promises to dole out money to urban voters and rural farmers.

According to an Aug. 18-19 poll by the Asahi Shimbun, 54 percent of 60,277 respondents said they were “very interested” in the election and 57 percent said they would vote for the DPJ in the proportional representation segment.

But only 24 percent of all respondents said they believe Japanese politics would “tread the right course” if a change of government takes place, while 56 percent said they expected no major change in politics regardless of the election outcome.

“Visiting dozens of (electoral) areas, I’ve realized that many voters are consciously punishing the LDP,” political journalist Takashi Uesugi wrote in an article posted Thursday on the Web site of the business weekly Shukan Diamond.

“But when I dropped by the campaign offices of the DPJ, I couldn’t feel the enthusiasm (of voters) one would expect from a party that could gain 300 Diet seats,” he wrote.

Despite this apparent lack of enthusiasm, voters still decided to cast their lot with the DPJ, underlining their deep frustration with the LDP. In July the jobless rate hit a record high 5.7 percent, with wages dropping at an unprecedented pace amid the country’s worst postwar recession.

The unemployment rate has been particularly high among younger people, while the elderly are anxious about the future of the shaky public pension system. In short, future prospects for the world’s second-largest economy — a position that could be taken over by China as early as this year — are grim. And people are fed up.

In the three years since Junichiro Koizumi quit the prime ministership, the LDP-led government has been dogged by scandals and internal disarray, prompting two LDP-installed successors to resign after only a year in office each.

“The enormous anticipation for change resulted in a snowball effect, a dangerously momentous snowball effect,” said Hidekazu Kawai, an honorary professor at Gakushuin University.

Now the DPJ led by Yukio Hatoyama, likely the next prime minister, will face intense scrutiny by a public thirsty for tangible change.

Kawai said the DPJ’s first task will be to avoid disappointing voters until next summer’s Upper House election, when it will look to gain a majority of seats without depending on smaller parties, including its likely coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

Only by winning a majority in the Upper House will the DPJ be able to deliver on its agenda without having to compromise with other parties.

But the problems that lie ahead are numerous, and the party’s core mantra of administrative reform — reforming governance by introducing a policymaking process centered on politicians — will inevitably encounter severe resistance from bureaucrats.

Kawai said he expects the DPJ to buy time before actual policies are implemented by exposing the public to previously undisclosed information that has been concealed by the LDP and the bureaucracy over the years.

“I don’t expect the DPJ to be able to produce visible results for at least a year,” Kawai said. “The DPJ will have to entertain the public by exposing past misdeeds to avert their attention” while it scrambles to establish a working administration.

Besides weakening the power of the bureaucracy through administrative reform, the DPJ’s policy platform includes plans to overhaul the budget by reviewing public works projects and cutting down on civil service costs.

The DPJ also promises to distribute cash handouts to single parents with children, offer free public high school education, provide income support for farmers and eliminate highway tolls.

To implement such policies and hasten the formation of a Cabinet, media reports indicate the DPJ has already begun screening 200 politicians who could be appointed to the Cabinet, the new national strategy office, and the new administrative reform and decentralization council, which is to take responsibility for finding areas where waste can be cut from the budget.

There is speculation that DPJ heavyweights Katsuya Okada and Naoto Kan, as well as Akira Nagatsuma and Hirohisa Fujii, will be appointed to important Cabinet posts, while former DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa will likely be named the party’s secretary general.

Tobias Harris, author of the political blog Observing Japan, said the main obstacle facing the DPJ has to do with how it will exercise power, rather than worrying about complaints about the party being too divided to govern.

“To move Japan into a new era of responsible government, the DPJ will have to do what LDP Cabinets have been unable to do — discipline its own backbenchers and control the bureaucracy,” Harris said.

“And with an enormous majority full of first-time Diet members, the party will have to work hard to keep its members on message, which could make Ozawa as secretary general a critical figure,” he said.

Harris added that the next prime minister will have to staff his Cabinet with the best possible politicians, capable of battling with their own bureaucrats.

He further predicted that when it’s time to debate policies with the SDP and Kokumin Shinto, the DPJ will naturally “try to pick the low-hanging fruits, policies in which there is broad agreement among the likely coalition.”

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said that with all the problems the nation faces, issues such as foreign policy will be on the back-burner for the time being, with the DPJ navigating a course similar to the one taken by the LDP.

“Even with the large ideological shift seen in U.S. politics with the new Obama administration, changes in foreign policy only come slowly,” Nakano said.

“And in the case of Japan, where ideological differences are virtually nil between the LDP and the DPJ, and considering that Japan is a junior partner in the U.S.-Japan alliance, there isn’t much the DPJ can do to change course in foreign policy.”

However, it is unknown whether the DPJ’s historic win will signal the dawn of a stable two-party system.

Kawai of Gakushuin University explained that in its history, the LDP has only been the opposition for 10 months. “They’re not used to being the opposition. It’ll be interesting in itself watching the political shift that will emerge within the LDP.”