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.

Kim Kyung-hoon/REUTERS
Prime Minister Taro Aso spoke as he toured a shopping arcade in Tokyo in July. His party faces a challenge in Aug. 30 vote.

Why is this election significant?

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.

In the 2007 upper house elections, the LDP, led by then-Prime Minister Abe, suffered a crushing defeat after revelations that the government had misplaced the pension records of 50 million people. The DPJ victory gave the opposition control of the upper house for the first time in the postwar era.

Japan's protracted economic downturns battered rural areas, traditional strongholds of the LDP. So, too, did Mr. Koizumi's structural reforms, which included the controversial privatization of the post office. But even under Koizumi, the LDP struggled to move beyond familiar pork-barrel politics.

Critics say leaders have been out of touch at a time when people are losing jobs or accepting deep pay cuts in the export-dependent economy.

Akikazu Hashimoto, a political science professor at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, says a major political shift started 20 years ago. "As the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union made more Japanese question the raison d'être of the LDP, the country started to see the emergence of unaffiliated voters not driven by an ideology," he says.

The LDP managed to survive as the opposition gained ground, by allying itself with the Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization, which is the power base of the New Komeito party, says Mr. Hashimoto, who projected five years ago that 2009 would be the year that 21st-century party politics would take hold in the country. "Their survival was also helped by biased media accounts [that did not challenge the LDP] and volatile public opinion."

What could the impact be on Japan's foreign policy?

Analysts say the two major parties differ little in foreign policy. The DPJ states in its platform that it seeks a "close and equal Japan-US alliance to serve as the foundation of Japan's foreign policy." It also wants to expand the nation's overseas roles in the UN's peacekeeping operations. DPJ leader Hatoyama is known as an advocate of a constitutional amendment to revoke Japan's war-renouncing Article 9.

The DPJ has pledged to strengthen Japan's ties with China, South Korea, and other Asian countries. Japan's often-tense relations with China and South Korea were further exacerbated by Koizumi's repeated visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors about 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals. Since then, there has been a thaw, though many politicians still visit Yasukuni, and the issues of World War II "comfort women" and the Nanjing massacre of 1937 linger. Aso says he will not visit the shrine this year.

Hatoyama says he will not visit the controversial shrine, either; his party has proposed building a new, secular memorial that would lack the controversial connection to Shinto.

Hatoyama's amicable relationship with the Dalai Lama, however, is likely to continue to roil Chinese-Japanese relations. Moreover, "there are still a good number of Japanese politicians who try to prolong their political career by inflaming parochial nationalism," says Kang Duk-sang, professor emeritus at the University of Shiga Prefecture and the director of the History Museum of J-Koreans (ethnic Koreans in Japan).

If the DPJ wins, it will bring only "cosmetic change" to Japan's relations with Asia, Mr. Kang argues. "I don't believe there will be a major shift since its postwar Asia policy is strongly influenced by the US."

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