Japan's opposition crushes LDP in landmark victory
Exit polls on Sunday gave the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) more than 300 seats in Japan's 480-seat Diet (parliament), ending more than 54 years of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.
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In foreign policy, the conservative-minded Hatoyama is not expected to shift Japan away from its close alliance with the United States, though he has said Tokyo will next year stop deploying refueling ships in support of coalition action in Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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LDP's alliance system crumbled
The LDP would have had a hard time holding on to power at these elections regardless of how long it had been in office. Over the past year Japan has suffered its worst economic recession since the war, and unemployment is at a near record 5.7 percent.
The party was fatally weakened, however, by the collapse of the system that had sustained it for more than half a century.
The LDP's dominance rested on its alliances with a range of powerful interest groups such as the farm lobby, the construction industry, the Japan Medical Association, and a nationwide network of influential local postmasters.
Instead of appealing directly to individual voters, the party relied on these groups to get out the vote at elections. For decades they did so, in return for policies that favored them.
One by one, however, these interest groups have peeled off, sometimes feeling betrayed by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's efforts at reform earlier this decade. Construction firms have been disappointed by a drop in public works programs; "Japan Agriculture", the farmers' co-operative, was upset by trims to farm support; the postmasters were angered by the privatization of the Post Office.
As the LDP party machine began misfiring, it lost the traditional loyalty many citizens felt for it. Today, estimates Mr. Hashimoto, who has written a book on unaffiliated voters, as much as 60 percent of the electorate is in the floating voter camp.
DPJ's fresh image
The DPJ, a 12 year old party projecting a fresh image and espousing a more immediate, transparent style of politics, has appealed directly to such voters. This has broken open the traditional power structure, built of businessmen, senior bureaucrats and politicians, to admit ordinary people.
"The public feels a certain anxiety about the DPJ, but it is ready to give them a chance" says Ken Takeuchi, a political analyst who founded Japan Internet News, a political website.
Not that the risks are that great. On many issues the DPJ's policies are very similar to the LDP's, and though trade unions and civil society groups will have a louder voice in the next government, it is not expected to make any radical moves to liberalize immigration, for example, or strengthen homosexual rights.
More than specific policies, however, it is the DPJ's victory itself, opening up the prospect for Japanese parties to alternate in power, that is most significant, says Prof. Pekkanen.
"Once peoples' expectations are changed, the system is broken for ever", he says. "Just the fact of change is bigger than everything else. What people had assumed as givens in Japanese society will no longer hold."
• Takehiko Kambayashi contributed reporting to this article.