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Briefing: Why power may shift in Japan

Japan’s Aug. 30 elections confront Prime Minister Taro Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party with the worst crisis in its history.

By Takehiko KambayashiCorrespondent / August 19, 2009

Prime Minister Taro Aso spoke as he toured a shopping arcade in Tokyo in July. His party faces a challenge in Aug. 30 vote.

Kim Kyung-hoon/REUTERS



Why is this election significant?

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The LDP has ruled the country for more than 50 years, with a brief gap of less than 11 months in the early 1990s. If opinion polls are correct that find the DPJ holding a strong lead over the LDP, Japan will move away from what has been essentially a one-party state.

A survey released Aug. 7 by the major daily Yomiuri also showed 46.5 percent of those polled say they want the DPJ'S Yukio Hatoyama to become the next prime minister, while only 22.1 percent support Aso as premier.

(Read Hatoyama’s views on globalization and Asian unity here.)

The potential for such significant change has energized a public that has become disillusioned about the country's politics in recent years.

"The election victory of the DPJ also means that it will be the first time in history that the Japanese people voted a change of government," says Masayasu Kitagawa, a former governor of Mie Prefecture and now the director of the Research Institute of Manifesto at Waseda University in Tokyo. "The people certainly have become excited. I'm sure we will see a high turnout."

Who is contesting the elections?

The LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition is being challenged by the major opposition DPJ and by other small parties. The People's New Party and the more left-leaning Social Democratic Party are likely coalition partners of the DPJ.

The 480 seats in the more powerful lower house of parliament are up for grabs. The system combines 300 ­single-seat districts and 180 proportional representation districts. The LDP controls 303 seats and its coalition partner, New Komeito, has 31 seats, while the DPJ has 112 seats. The lower house chooses the prime minister. Lower house members' terms were to expire Sept. 10, four years after the last election. But Aso dissolved the lower house in mid-July to call for a general election.

What are the key campaign issues?

The global recession, unemployment, pension reform, low birthrates, and an aging society top the list of major issues confronting this island nation of about 127 million people.

The DPJ seeks to spur consumer spending; its platform promises to give consumers more money by offering tax credits to families with children, making gas cheaper, and eliminating highway tolls.

Meanwhile, Aso says the government will continue investing in targeted industries to stimulate the economy. He also promised to create 2 million new jobs, though both promises lacked specifics.

But the LDP has not been able to energize the public. "Those who criticized vested interest groups were the very vested interest groups. They could not reinvent themselves, while no new industries have yet to emerge," says Masaru Kaneko, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo. "The government still squanders $60 billion on road building. They fail to place priority on education and social security."

Why is the LDP in such trouble?

After the departure of popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2006, Japan returned to revolving-door prime ministers. Each of Aso's two predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, abruptly stepped down after only a year.