Half a century of almost uninterrupted conservative rule in Japan will come to an end this week as Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) takes power, facing huge pressure to revive the economy.
It is the first time since 1955 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been voted out of government in the world’s No. 2 economy, and only their second stint ever in opposition.
Hatoyama — whose DPJ won a landslide general election victory two weeks ago with a promise of change — is set to be appointed prime minister by parliament on Wednesday. Experts say his honeymoon with voters may not last long.
Opinion polls show the DPJ faces high expectations from voters eager to see an improvement in the ailing economy following the worst slump in decades, but pulling the country out of its long economic malaise will be no easy task.
While the recession may be over, officially at least, unemployment and homelessness are on the rise and the country faces major long-term challenges to cope with an ageing and shrinking population as well as soaring public debt.
“Drastic changes won’t come immediately. But the DPJ must show tangible changes that people can see and feel in order to stay in government,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of politics at Tokyo’s Nihon University.
Hatoyama, 62, has laid out an ambitious agenda, promising to boost household income through financial assistance for families and farmers, free high school school education and an end to highway tolls — all without raising taxes.
He has delighted environmentalists but irked business leaders by pledging to cut Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions by ambitious 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels — if other major emitters commit to similarly aggressive goals.
On the diplomatic front, he has vowed to seek an “equal” alliance with the US and has already raised eyebrows in Washington with a spirited critique of US-led globalization and “unrestrained market fundamentalism.”
Hatoyama will make his debut on the world stage as prime minister later this month — addressing the UN General Assembly, meeting US President Barack Obama and taking part in a summit of leaders from the G20 nations. His foremost task during the trip is to confirm Japan’s alliance with the US, having called for a review of US military forces in Japan that provide security for the pacifist nation against the threat from North Korea.
The DPJ, which has long argued that Japan should not be part of “an American war,” has promised to end Japan’s naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
“It is only natural that policies change when the government changes,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hokkaido University. “Japan should have no reason to be bound by the US policies.”
The DPJ, which has struck a coalition deal with two smaller parties, says it will fund its spending pledges by cutting wasteful spending on public construction projects and a bloated bureaucracy.
The DPJ has never governed before and polls suggest that Japanese are wary about prospects for a change of power. The recent political earthquake was seen as more of a vote against the conservatives than a vote for the Democrats.
The LDP’s only previous stint in opposition lasted for about 10 months in 1993 and 1994, when a group of smaller parties formed a fragile coalition.