Historic day for Japanese politics

In a historic change in Japan’s parliamentary political history, the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition in Sunday’s Lower House election. The DPJ has captured 308 seats out of the 480 seats in the all-important chamber.

The DPJ’s victory ends almost 55 years of uninterrupted rule by the LDP, which was formed and first took power in late 1955. The election also represents the first Lower House election in the postwar universal suffrage era in which one opposition party has won a majority in the chamber by defeating a ruling party that enjoyed a majority. Japan’s democracy has matured to a stage in which the people will readily vote for a change in government when they are dissatisfied with the status quo.

The election’s outcome should not be interpreted as a simple “yes” vote for the DPJ, despite its landslide victory. It was, in fact, a “no” vote for the LDP, as demonstrated by an Asahi Shimbun poll in which just 25 percent of those surveyed believed Japan would head in a positive direction if there was a change of government. Up to 54 percent thought the situation would not change. Clearly, the DPJ government faces a tough road ahead.

In the September 2005 Lower House election, voters enthusiastically supported Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s LDP, whose slogan was “Don’t stop the reform.” But people’s lives have not improved and disappointment has prevailed. Even when the economy was expanding, workers’ wages failed to rise and most people did not share the fruits of growth. Irregular workers now account for one-third of the labor force and stable employment eludes millions of people. Poverty has become a serious issue.

The retrenchment policy introduced by the Koizumi administration has degraded welfare, medical and nursing care services. The lost pension records fiasco, which took place under LDP rule, has also increased people’s worries about the future.

Following Mr. Koizumi’s resignation, three members of the LDP assumed the office of prime minister without a voter mandate, further eroding popular trust in LDP-led politics. Prime Minister Taro Aso’s tenure, which was marked by frequent flip-flops over important issues such as the ¥2 trillion cash handout to individuals and reorganization of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, raised doubts over his qualifications to lead. These and other negative factors helped buoy support for the DPJ.

During the campaign, none of the political parties came forward with grand designs for the future. Instead, they more or less concentrated on policies that directly affect people’s financial well-being. Still, differences cropped up.

Most conspicuous was the DPJ’s proposals to take the initiative for policy development from the hands of bureaucrats. They include sending about 100 lawmakers to oversee government ministries and agencies, forming Cabinet committees composed of Cabinet ministers to deal with particular issues, and establishing a national strategy bureau under the prime minister to work out a national vision and budget outline.

The DPJ aims to break the traditional triangular network of politicians, bureaucrats and industry — the basis of LDP politics. But to achieve this goal, DPJ lawmakers must first be able to persuade bureaucrats to disclose key information, which is often hidden, then analyze that information and lead bureaucrats in the correct policy direction.

The DPJ is taking the reins of government at a time when the nation’s economy is in dire straits. Not only does the DPJ have to improve the unemployment situation — now the worst ever — and revive the economy, it must tackle the long-term issue of repaying the nation’s long-term debts, which will amount to about 170 percent of gross domestic product by the end of next March.

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama’s key concept is “return to the idea of fraternity” and to rectify the excess of market fundamentalism, under which “people are treated not as an end but as a means.” He calls for “policies that regenerate the ties that bring people together, that take greater account of nature and the environment, that rebuild welfare and medical systems, that provide better education and child-rearing support, and that address wealth disparities.” Achieving such results will require deft political skills and enormous effort.

In the field of foreign policy, the DPJ government must ensure relations remain on a positive footing with other nations — especially the United States. The Japan-U.S. security alliance is indispensable for Japan’s defense and for regional stability. The new government must also deal with China’s growing economic and military power. Given the monumental tasks that await the DPJ government, Mr. Hatoyama will need to exhibit leadership that is both farsighted and decisive.