August 31, 2009
In Upheaval, Japanese Opposition Wins Elections
By MARTIN FACKLER
TOKYO — For only the second time in postwar history, Japanese voters cast out the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party in elections on Sunday, handing a landslide victory to an untested opposition that must tackle severe economic problems and point Japan in a new direction.
Voters flocked to the main opposition Democratic Party, a broad coalition of former socialists and ruling party defectors who promised to ease Japan’s growing social inequalities and reduce its traditional dependency on Washington.
However, the victory seemed less an embrace of the opposition and its policies than a resounding rejection of the conservative incumbents, whom voters blame for this former economic superpower’s stubborn decline and increasingly cloudy future.
During the hard-fought two-week campaign, Prime Minister Taro Aso hammered at his opponents’ lack of experience, while the opposition said the time had come to toss out Japan’s entrenched old guard.
After the vote, Mr. Aso conceded defeat, telling reporters that he felt “regret” for the vote and that he would have to step down as prime minister and party leader.
The Democrats won 293 of the 480 seats in the powerful lower house, giving it control of the chamber and far surpassing the 112 seats they held before the vote, according to a count late Sunday night by the national broadcaster NHK. The incumbents took just 99, a third of their previous total. Votes for most the other seats were still being counted.
“The people are enraged at the current government,” the Democratic Party leader, Yukio Hatoyama, told reporters. “We feel the strong desire to make their lives better by changing the government.”
The next step for Mr. Hatoyama, a bushy-haired former professor, will be putting together a new government, with himself as the likely prime minister, a process that is expected to take two or three weeks.
The vote was seen here as an exhilarating moment in Japanese democracy, when the country’s traditionally passive voters showed they could control their nation. The hope among activists was that Japan would replace more than a half-century of virtual one-party rule with a more competitive brand of politics.
Many Japanese saw it as a final blow to Japan’s postwar order, which has been slowly unraveling since the economy collapsed in the early 1990s. It also appeared to be a crushing setback for the Liberal Democratic Party, a Cold War-era creation that led Japan from bombed-out rubble to economic miracle, and kept it firmly in Washington’s camp, but that has appeared increasingly exhausted and directionless.
“We have been trying to outgrow this old one-party system ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall,” said Takeshi Sasaki, a political expert and former president of the University of Tokyo. “It took two decades, but we finally made it.”
The sense that Japan had hit a turning point drew long lines of voters, who in Tokyo braved darkening skies from an approaching typhoon to visit polling stations.
Voters expressed a mix of excitement and unease, saying that what was most significant about this election was the fact that they finally had a real choice besides the unpopular Liberal Democrats.
“This vote is about making a system where parties that fail get kicked out,” said Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, a 40-year-old salaryman who voted at a junior high school in the suburb of Sayama. “We need to teach politicians to be nervous.”
For the Democrats, their initial concern will likely be maintaining unity, to avoid the mistakes of the only previous non-Liberal Democratic government, in 1993, which collapsed in just 11 months because of infighting and defections. Besides that brief period, the Liberal Democratic Party, which was created with American backing in 1955, and its precursors have held or shared power since 1946.
Analysts also expect the Democrats to focus in the first months on domestic issues. The party has pledged to change Japan’s postwar paradigm here by handing more money and social benefits directly to consumers, and not to industry or other interest groups.
It has promised to slash Japan’s traditionally hefty public works spending in favor of strengthening the social safety net and trying to raise graying Japan’s low birth rate by giving families cash handouts of $270 per month per child. The party has also promised to rein in Tokyo’s powerful central ministries, which have run postwar Japan on the Liberal Democrats’ behalf.
But even here, people are not unanimously enthusiastic for the party’s platform, or optimistic about its ability to solve looming problems like the growing government debt and a rapidly aging population.
“People are holding their nose and voting for the Democratic Party,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Japanese politics at Temple University in Tokyo. “They want anybody but the L.D.P.,” using the incumbent party’s initials.
There has even been concern here that the Democrats’ margin of victory could be too big. Some in the media have said a landslide could let the Democrats simply replace the Liberal Democrats as a dominant party, instead of creating the competitive two-party democracy that many had hoped would emerge from this election.
The Democratic leader, Yukio Hatoyama, tried to allay such concerns by saying that his party would avoid the heavy-handed tactics abhorred in Japan’s consensus-driven political culture.
“If the Democratic Party becomes too big, they will become a new dictatorship,” said Miwako Sato, a 41-year-old homemaker at a polling station in Yokohama, a city near Tokyo. She said for that reason she had split her vote between the Democrats and a smaller party.
Still, the tone of conversations on Japan’s talk shows and on the streets was a mixture of thrill and anxiety about the imminent end of more than a half-century of Liberal Democratic rule. It remained unclear if a switch would bring a big change in Japan’s direction, as the two centrist parties are close on most policies.
Rather, the nation has been transfixed by the saga of the governing party’s kingpins fighting for their political lives amid the anti-incumbent sentiment. Tabloids have reveled in reporting on former prime ministers and party power brokers in losing battles against largely unknown opposition candidates, many of them charming younger women widely referred to as “assassins” because of their devastating political effect on their opponents.
One former prime minister, the gaffe-prone Yoshiro Mori, 72, drew the ire of many when he told voters not to be fooled by the “sexiness” of his opponent, a 33-year-old former temporary worker named Mieko Tanaka.
The Liberal Democrats are fighting back by mobilizing their own younger lawmakers, many of them also women, to campaign for older male colleagues.
Reporting was contributed by Makiko Inoue in Sayama, Japan, and Yasuko Kamiizumi in Yokohama, Japan.