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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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Hatoyama's party is also promising to do away with highway tolls, cut business taxes and increase the minimum pension -- all without raising the consumption tax in the near future. The party also says that it will somehow find a way not to increase the staggering government debt, which is the highest among industrialized nations, at 180 percent of gross domestic product.

"It is doubtful that they can really deliver on all this," said Richard Jerram, chief economist at Macquarie Capital Securities in Tokyo. "Once they win, maybe they will water down their promises. If they don't, it is going to be problematic."

The Japanese economy, although it returned to growth in the second quarter of this year, has been the hardest hit of all industrialized countries by the global recession.

Even before the downturn, Japan was growing at a snail's pace compared with its neighbors in Asia. In the coming year, Japan is all but certain to lose to China its longtime ranking as the world's second-largest economy.

Yet there are few specifics in the Democratic Party's manifesto about increasing growth, enhancing productivity or privatizing inefficient government services.

Most voters, according to polls, doubt that the party can raise the money needed to pay for its promised programs, which add up to about $178 billion in new spending. The party says it will find the funds by ending wasteful spending, tapping "buried treasure" in obscure bureaucratic accounts and abolishing some tax deductions.

What voters do believe will happen after the election -- and what the Democratic Party seems capable of delivering -- is a substantial change in the way the government is run.

For decades, an elite bureaucracy has quietly controlled much of government policy, often aligning it with the interests of the country's largest corporations.

"The bureaucrats, confident that they were safe, created heaven for themselves," Hatoyama said in his speech.

His party is promising to blow up this system, replacing it with a "politician-led government in which the ruling party holds full responsibility." It plans to place more than 100 members of parliament in charge of the various bureaucracies and require them to take marching orders from the prime minister's office.

In addition, the party says it will ban corporate political donations, restrict the ability of retired bureaucrats to find lucrative jobs in industries they regulated and ban hereditary seats in parliament. About a third of LDP members in the lower house have inherited their electoral districts from relatives.

During the more than five decades of LDP rule, the main pillar of its foreign policy has been a close and cooperative relationship with the United States, which guarantees Japan's safety and keeps about 50,000 military personnel here.

The somewhat left-leaning Democratic Party has been less enamored of this special relationship. Its leaders want to give foreign policy a more Asian tilt, eventually creating an East Asian community with China, South Korea and other countries. The party has also said that it would examine ending the Japanese navy's role in refueling U.S. and allied warships in the Indian Ocean, as well as revising rules for the presence of American forces in Japan.

As the party's victory has become a near certainty, its leaders have played down significant policy differences with the United States.

"Continuity is key," said Tetsuro Fukuyama, who helped write the party's manifesto.

The U.S.-Japan relationship will be the "centerpiece" of foreign policy, he said, remaining "as important as it ever was."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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