Energized Voters Seem Poised to End LDP's Half-Century Rule in Japan

Prime Minister Taro Aso's leadership has been derided by his own party.
Prime Minister Taro Aso's leadership has been derided by his own party. (By Koji Sasahara -- Associated Press)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 27, 2009

TOKYO -- Japanese voters are on the brink of doing something they have not been willing to do in more than half a century: throw the bums out.

The opposition Democratic Party is surging toward what polls predict will be a landslide victory Sunday. It would end 54 years of near-continuous rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which led Japan to stupendous postwar wealth but in recent years has become stagnant, sclerotic and poisonously unpopular.

The opposition party's leader, Yukio Hatoyama, 62, an elegantly attired, Stanford-educated engineer, seems to derive much of his popularity from the simple act of being a sentient replacement for Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose tone-deaf leadership over the past year has made him an object of derision, even in his own party.

In the election's final week, Hatoyama is drawing big crowds for his signature stump speech, which savages "the long-term reign of one party gone rotten."

Although voters seem energized by the opportunity to flush the LDP down the drain of history, they are much less certain about what will replace it.

"I am not sure of what the Democratic Party is saying or what it will do, but there has to be a change in power," said Hideo Enomoto, 58, who sells industrial machines and who listened this week as Hatoyama spoke outside a commuter train station during the evening rush hour.

Senior LDP leaders acknowledged this week that the Democratic Party is on the verge of a historic win that may provide it with a commanding two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament and the ability to decide policy all by itself. The Democratic Party already controls the less powerful upper house.

The prospect of tossing the LDP out of power has created the highest level of voter interest in a general election to date, according to a survey by the Yomiuri newspaper. In the poll, 89 percent of respondents indicated interest in the vote.

As its marquee incentive for dumping the LDP, the Democratic Party is promising that it will pay parents as much as $276 a month to raise a child until he or she graduates from junior high.

Japan has the world's lowest percentage of children and highest percentage of elderly. It's a slow-motion demographic disaster that the LDP has long ignored and that the Democratic Party hopes to turn into electoral gold.

"If that money is going to come, then it is well worth voting for the Democratic Party," said Aya Koike, a 20-year-old who came with her two infant children to listen to Hatoyama's speech. She works nights in a Tokyo restaurant but could quit if the government began paying her $552 a month to look after her kids.

Many young women in Japan are reluctant to have children because of the lack of affordable day care. Promising to "take the anxiety out of child rearing," the Democratic Party has said that it will eliminate waiting lists for cheap public day care and remove tuition fees for high school.

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