Japanese Ruling Party Loses After 54 Years in Power

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 31, 2009

TOKYO, Aug. 31 -- Breaking a half-century hammerlock of one-party rule in Japan, the opposition Democratic Party won a crushing election victory Sunday with pledges to revive the country's stalled economy and to steer a foreign-policy course less dependent on the United States.

But it was pent-up voter anger, not campaign promises, that halted 54 years of near-continuous dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The party had become a profoundly unpopular, but deeply entrenched, governing force that so feared it would be swept from power that it had put off a national election for nearly three years.

In a record landslide on a rainy day, voters awarded 308 seats in the powerful 480-seat lower house of parliament to a slightly left-of-center opposition party formed by disaffected LDP veterans. It is led by Yukio Hatoyama, 62, a Stanford-trained engineer who will probably be chosen prime minister in mid-September.

"I believe all the people were feeling a great rage against the current government," Hatoyama said. "Everything starts now. We can finally do politics that the people are building their hopes on. My heart is too full for words."

The grand strategist behind the win was Ichiro Ozawa, a former LDP power broker. He was the Democratic Party's founding leader until he was forced to resign this year in a campaign finance scandal.

Hatoyama thanked Ozawa on Sunday night for engineering the victory and said he wants Ozawa either to serve in his cabinet or to continue as campaign manager for the party.

"Frustration against the LDP, which ignored people's lives and favored the bureaucracy, has been felt nationwide," Ozawa said, explaining his party's win.

Japan was the postwar wonder that grew into the world's second-largest economy. But it became enfeebled and directionless in the latter years of the LDP's long watch, with stagnant wages and sputtering growth, the worrying rise of the world's oldest population, and a monstrous government debt that will soon double the gross national product. Unemployment set a record last week, and the economy shrank for much of the past year at nearly twice the U.S. rate.

For these failings, voters seemed eager to punish the LDP and its unpopular leader, Prime Minister Taro Aso. On Sunday, Aso called his party's defeat "very severe."

"I think it is a result of the people's dissatisfaction and distrust towards LDP's leadership," Aso said, adding that he takes responsibility for the loss and will step down as party leader.

Judging from polls and voter interviews, the opposition won not because of its attractive policies or charismatic leadership. There is skepticism about how sound those policies are and doubt about how capable the party's unproven leaders will be. Instead, the Democratic Party won by default, as the only available means by which voters could wrest power from the LDP.

"It is not really that I am voting for the Democratic Party," said Atsushi Neriugawa, 49, owner of a consulting company, after voting in Tokyo. "I simply want power to change. If the Democratic Party happens to be no good, then I will revert back to LDP."

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