Big election, bigger change

TOKYO: The 54-year reign of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is expected to come to an end on August 30 in the country’s first general election in four years.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has little experience leading on a national level, but there are strong indications that voters will overwhelmingly support the party and its ambitious platform of reforming Japan’s broken systems. After half a century Japan, it seems, is finally clamouring for change. The LDP machine, which lifted Japan from its postwar doldrums, has been unable to deliver the needs of the public for years — some would argue decades.

Now faced with uncertain future and an economy in crisis, Japan’s electorate will cast their votes not only to signify their desire for a shift in direction, but also to say that they have a choice in what party leads their country. “This is the most important election since 1955,” says Gerald Curtis, a Japanese politics expert who teaches at Columbia University. “The DPJ will almost certainly win the majority — without a coalition partner. This is a huge, huge change.” Recent polls show the DPJ poised to win more than 300 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives election.

A win of 320 seats would

give the party a two-thirds majority and the power to

pass bills without the support of other parties or even the

upper house.

Meanwhile, the ruling LDP party is slated to drop to about 100 seats — an anaemic one-third of what it held before Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved the lower house and called elections in July, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun.

The expected reshuffle points to the DPJ’s strength not only in cities, but also in rural areas that were long considered the seat of the LDP’s electoral power. The electorate is already showing a level of political interest higher than in previous general elections. More than one million people have cast early ballots, up more than a million from the 2005 general election.

And voter turnout, for 104 million eligible voters,

could reach 70% — the highest rate for a general election

since 1990.

The DPJ has been gaining momentum since 2007 — the year of its historic majority win of the Diet’s upper house.

And since official campaigning began on August 18, the LDP, feeling the pinch of competition, has seen its bigwig politicians return to their constituencies to ask for support. Some of the LDP’s more

well-known members, such

as faction leader Nobutaka Machimura and former defence minister and environment minister, Yuriko Koike, will have a difficult time

defending their seats, say


A confluence of factors has led Japan to the eve of its political upheaval — not least of which includes the global economic crisis. Economic indicators released this week could serve another blow to Aso’s administration. Figures released on August 28 — two days before the election — show Japan’s unemployment rate for July at a record 5.7 per cent, up from the six-year high in June of 5.4 per cent and well on its way to the 6 per cent figure analysts expect by year’s end. Japan’s July exports dipped to 36.5 per cent over last year, falling for a tenth straight month. Exports to China and the U.S., Japan’s top two trade partners, fell 26.5 per cent

and 39.5 per cent, respectively, over last year. And consumer prices in June also fell an

unprecedented 2.2 per cent from a year ago.

Japan’s economy, however, has been suffering since the so-called “lost decade” of the 1990s following the burst of Japan’s banking and real

estate bubbles. The LDP, says Curtis, failed to respond to the changing needs of the people, particularly those living in

rural areas.

The electorate system, which changed in 1994 to include single-member districts, also chipped away at what helped insulate the LDP from political competition.

Before the switch from multi-member to single-member districts, voters who disapproved of the incumbent could vote for another LDP member, one of a different faction. With one seat to a district, however, a vote for “the other” becomes a vote for another party. That other party has become the DPJ.