Japanese voters on Sunday handed a humiliating defeat to the Liberal Democratic Party after its half-century of nearly unbroken rule, opting for an untested opposition party that pledged to revive the nation’s ailing economy.
Signaling frustration over a declining quality of life, a record-high unemployment rate, unraveling social services and political scandals, voters rebuked Prime Minister Taro Aso and a party that had dominated national politics here since the Eisenhower administration.
In landslide numbers, they turned to Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama, the wealthy grandson of a former prime minister, who left the Liberal Democratic Party and in 1996 helped found a now-thriving opposition movement. His party won 308 seats in parliament’s 480-member lower house, according to the final tally reported by Japanese news media, assuring that he will be elected prime minister in the coming weeks.
The Kyodo News Agency reported that Hatoyama, 62, has begun talks early today on forming a new government.
Still, questions remain about how Hatoyama and his Democratic Party will fulfill their campaign promises in the face of an entrenched and often unwieldy bureaucracy and a stagnant economy. The strength of the party’s mandate also is unclear, despite the numbers -- some experts believe that many voters were more intent on defeating the Liberal Democrats than putting the opposition party in power.
Despite Hatoyama’s campaign assertions that his government would reexamine Japan’s policies toward the United States, few expected any major changes between the two allies.
In a speech carried nationwide, Hatoyama said he would form a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party and People’s New Party, acknowledging that he rode a sentiment of public anger against the Liberal Democrats.
“We have felt this great need to change things to make life better for the public,” he said. “We have been vowing to change the government in this election. It feels very likely that that is the situation that is unraveling.”
In a hastily called news conference this afternoon, Aso announced his resignation as party leader. Late Sunday, the prime minister had taken responsibility for the LDP’s defeat. “The outcome of this election has been a very tough one. I am taking what the Japanese public is saying sincerely,” he said.
Throughout the campaign, the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, echoed the promise of change that propelled Barack Obama last year to the U.S. presidency. Although experts say there was jubilation among many voters Sunday, they believed that those high spirits were tempered.
“People feel better and lighter because the LDP is gone, but there is not the same jubilation felt in America after Obama’s election,” said Masaru Tamamoto, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. “Obama told America where he was going. But the Democratic Party really hasn’t told us where it and we are going.”
The Democratic Party’s campaign platform pledged to wrest control of government from bureaucrats who it says have failed to fix the ailing pension system. Hatoyama said he would form a National Strategy Bureau comprising both the public and private sector to advise the government.
The platform included child allowances for middle-class families and aid for struggling farmers. The party promised to bolster the economy, which is suffering its worst recession in six decades and in July saw a record 5.7% jobless rate.
In the past, Hatoyama has also emphasized that Japan must develop a more “independent” stance from the U.S. But as prime minister, many believe, he will not immediately risk upsetting the status quo with his nation’s most crucial security ally.
“He’s not going to rupture the relationship, but I do think he will try to have a somewhat more Asia-centered than U.S.-centered policy,” said Ellis Krauss, a professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at UC San Diego.
One stumbling block will be Japan’s role refueling U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean carrying war materiel to Afghanistan, a mission Hatoyama opposes.
“He’s going to pretty quickly confront some realities of Japan’s situation and find it might be a little difficult at times,” Krauss said. “I mean, he’s in a hard place. This isn’t a great way to start off a relationship with the Obama administration.”
Under Hatoyama, Japan will probably shift toward friendlier relations with China, Krauss said.
The Democratic Party leader has already indicated that, unlike some past prime ministers, Hatoyama will not visit the Yasukuni war shrine where many of the nation’s veterans are buried -- including convicted war criminals. Such visits have angered Japan’s Asian neighbors.
“All the bad memory stuff will go away,” Krauss said. “It will be an immediate improvement.”
This is the first election in which the Democrats represented a viable alternative to the ruling party, which has become isolated from voters after a series of scandals and leadership gaffes by Aso.
Voters were derisive of Aso’s often stumbling use of the language. His finance minister was forced to resign this year after he appeared drunk in public at a conference in Rome.
Sunday’s results represent stinging defeats to politicians, including at least one former prime minister, unaccustomed to losing elections.
One was Liberal Democrat Toshiki Kaifu, who served as prime minister from 1989 to 1991. At 78, he lost his bid for a 17th term in parliament.
Yoshio Tezuka was one benefactor of the power shift. He regained a seat in Tokyo’s 5th District that he had lost to a Liberal Democratic opponent in 2005 after two terms.
Tezuka, 42, said before Sunday that he sensed change was in the air. Still, he wasn’t taking any chances. Forsaking the election vans that candidates often use to cover more ground, broadcasting their message to voters via loudspeakers, Tezuka campaigned on foot between train stations to meet voters up close.
“Japan has never gone through a real political power shift. I think voters are feeling the possibility of the regime change being real,” he said. “I feel a lot of sense of anticipation that may come from something like that. I’ve never gotten this much response in my career as a politician.”
Still, many voters struggled in their choice.
“I gave quite a lot of thought about whether to vote for the LDP or the DPJ candidate,” said homemaker Fumie Nakasone, 56, on Friday as she cast an early ballot. “I don’t think the LDP has given enough effort [to serve the public] in the last few years.”
Not everyone fed up with the Liberal Democrats chose the Democratic Party. “I don’t think we can really rely on the DPJ. I don’t think their policy issues are on the right track,” said student Masayuki Sato, 22. “They also don’t have the track record to prove they can lead.”
Even in defeat the Liberal Democrats kept some loyalists.
“I’ve always voted for the LDP,” said Tazuko Sakamoto, 75. “I think they have taken care of me well enough. Mr. Hatoyama is promising many big things, but I wonder if he will be able to actually deliver those promises. That’s questionable.”
Nagano is a special correspondent.