Next Month's Election in Japan Could Bring Historic Shift in Country's Politics

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso salutes to journalists upon arrival at his official residence in Tokyo Monday, July 13, 2009. The embattled prime minister has decided to dissolve parliament and call a general election for next month, according to news reports Monday, a day after his Liberal Democratic Party was badly beaten by the opposition in a local Tokyo vote. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso salutes to journalists upon arrival at his official residence in Tokyo Monday, July 13, 2009. The embattled prime minister has decided to dissolve parliament and call a general election for next month, according to news reports Monday, a day after his Liberal Democratic Party was badly beaten by the opposition in a local Tokyo vote. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) (AP)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TOKYO, July 13 -- Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso kept putting off a national election, hoping that voter dissatisfaction with him and his ruling party would peter out with the passage of time.

But five straight losses for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in local elections -- culminating over the weekend with a crushing defeat in Tokyo -- have demonstrated that discontent is gathering steam.

Aso acknowledged as much Monday, abandoning delay as an election strategy and calling a general election for next month.

Unless Aso can perform a political miracle, which his listless, gaffe-prone nine-month tenure as prime minister suggests is unlikely, Japanese voters seem poised to toss him and his party out of power. It would be a historic crack in the long-frozen ice of Japanese politics.

The LDP has ruled this country almost continuously as a virtual one-party state since the mid-1950s. It presided over the manufacturing miracle that made Japan the world's second-largest economy, but since then, critics say, it has focused on staying in power.

Under Aso and his recent predecessors, the government has all but ignored an impending demographic calamity. Japan has fewer children and more elderly people than any developed nation in world history, but its government has done little to encourage childbirth or increase immigration -- despite a growing clamor from business groups that predict ruinous decline because of a lack of workers.

Public support for the government has also been eroded by the poor performance of Japan's export-led economy, which shrank during the first quarter of this year at the fastest pace in more than half a century. The economy here has contracted twice as much as that of the United States. In the past year, Japan has been the worst performer among major countries.

Aso is one of three unloved prime ministers selected in the past three years by elders in the LDP -- with no say from Japanese voters.

Two of them quit abruptly after less than a year of aimless leadership. Aso's dismal approval ratings (now around 20 percent) have led to repeated calls within his own party for him to quit.

None of the three even approached the popularity and effectiveness of Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down in 2006 and who earlier this year suggested that Aso was incompetent.

A general election, which decides which party or coalition of parties controls the lower house of parliament and picks the next prime minister, could break a two-year-old political deadlock that has crippled the government's ability to pass legislation.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan controls the upper house. Its candidate for prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, 62, a wealthy politician who has a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, has been crushing Aso in recent opinion polls.


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