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Japanese Voters Eager for Change
Longtime Ruling Party on Brink of Ouster

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.

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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