Japanese voters longing for change look likely to hand the opposition Democratic Party a historic victory in an election one week away, trouncing the conservative party that has ruled for most of the past half-century.
That would be a stunning reversal of fortunes for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from four years ago, when charismatic former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi led the way to a huge win with pledges of bold reforms.
What has altered, analysts say, isn’t voters’ desire for change, but their perception of who can achieve it.
“In 2005, it looked like Koizumi would deliver change,” Chuo University professor Steven Reed said. “Now voters are going to try for change again — but this time, with different people.”
Newspaper surveys are predicting Yukio Hatoyama’s decade-old Democratic Party could win by a landslide, taking some 300 seats in parliament’s 480-member lower house and ousting the LDP for only the second time since its 1955 founding.
Analysts caution that the Democrats’ victory may be less overwhelming, but many do expect them to win a majority.
That would be a huge shift from 2005, when the LDP won a whopping 296 seats and together with its smaller partner, the New Komeito, gained a two-thirds majority in the chamber.
Certainly, the content of calls for change is different now.
Koizumi energized the electorate with a pledge to privatize the giant postal system as a symbol of bold, market-friendly reforms and by kicking out party rebels who opposed the plan.
Four years, one global financial crisis and a recession later, the Democrats are promising to refocus spending on consumers not companies to boost growth, reduce bureaucrats’ clout over policies, cut waste and rein in what they see as the excesses of US-style capitalism.
“We must shift to a policy of directly stimulating household finances and by that means make people’s livelihoods and the economy prosperous,” Hatoyama said in a TV debate yesterday.
The Democrats also want to forge a diplomatic stance more independent of Tokyo’s top security ally Washington.
Some analysts say for many voters, content matters less than the concept of change given anxiety about a quickly aging society and challenges such as from rival China.
“Voters want the country to get better. It’s nothing specific. It’s a feeling,” Reed said. “Voters as a mass are not capable of dealing with a lot of policy details. They just want to be confident that these guys know what they are doing.”
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso has admitted Koizumi’s reforms had a downside, but was trying to convince voters that only an experienced LDP could handle tough problems such as an economy struggling to emerge from its worst recession in 60 years and security threats from an unpredictable nearby North Korea.
The past three years since Koizumi stepped down, however, may have seriously undermined that claim.
Koizumi’s successor, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, shifted focus from economic reforms to a nationalist agenda aimed at making Japan proud of its past and loosening the constraints of its pacifist Constitution.
He then quit abruptly just months after the ruling bloc lost a 2007 upper house poll because of public anger over scandals in his Cabinet and bureaucrats’ loss of millions of pension records.
The next Japanese prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, lasted only about a year in the face of a parliamentary deadlock and incumbent Aso’s popularity has been eroded by gaffes and policy flip-flops.