Japan Gets Ready for Big Elections — And Big Change

Japan Gets Ready for Big Elections — And Big Change

The 54-year reign of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is expected to come to an end on Sunday in the country’s first general election in four years. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan , has little experience leading on a national level, but there are strong indications that voters will overwhelmingly support the party and its ambitious platform of reforming Japan’s broken system.

After half a century Japan, it seems, is finally clamoring for change. The LDP machine, which lifted Japan from its postwar doldrums, has been unable to deliver the needs of the public for years — some would argue decades. Now, faced with an uncertain future and an economy in crisis, Japan’s electorate is expected to call for a shift in direction — and also to say that they have a choice in which party leads their country. “This is the most important election since 1955,” says Gerald Curtis, a Japanese politics expert who teaches at Columbia University. “The DPJ will almost certainly win the majority — without a coalition partner. This is a huge, huge change.”

Recent polls show the DPJ poised to win more than 300 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives election. A win of 320 seats would give the party a two-thirds majority and the power to pass bills without the support of other parties or even the upper house. Meanwhile, the ruling LDP party is slated to drop to about 100 seats, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun— an anemic one-third of what it held before Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved the lower house and called elections in July. The expected reshuffle points to the DPJ’s strength not only in cities, but also in rural areas that were long considered the seat of the LDP’s electoral power.

The electorate is already showing a level of political interest higher than in previous general elections. More than three million people have cast early ballots, up more than 50% from the 2005 general election. And voter turnout, for 104 million eligible voters, could reach 70% — the highest rate for a general election since 1990.

The DPJ has been gaining momentum since 2007 — the year of its historic majority win of the Diet’s upper house. And since official campaigning began on Aug. 18, the LDP, feeling the pinch of competition, has seen its bigwig politicians return to their constituencies to ask for support. Some of the LDP’s more well-known members, such as faction leader Nobutaka Machimura and former defense minister and environment minister, Yuriko Koike, will have a difficult time defending their seats, say analysts.

A confluence of factors has led Japan to its likely political upheaval — not least of which is the global economic crisis. Figures released Aug. 28 — two days before the election — show Japan’s unemployment rate for July at a record 5.7%, up from the six-year high in June of 5.4% and well on its way to the 6% figure analysts expect by year’s end. Japan’s July exports dipped to 36.5% over last year, falling for a tenth straight month. Exports to China and the U.S., Japan’s top two trade partners, fell 26.5% and 39.5%, respectively, over last year. And consumer prices in June also fell an unprecedented 2.2% from a year ago.

Japan’s economy, however, has been suffering since the so-called “lost decade” of the 1990s following the bursting of Japan’s banking and real estate bubbles. The LDP, says Curtis, failed to respond to the changing needs of the people, particularly those living in rural areas. The electorate system, which changed in 1994 to include single-member districts, also chipped away at what helped insulate the LDP from political competition. Before the switch from multi-member to single-member districts, voters who disapproved of the incumbent could vote for another LDP member if they wanted a change. With one seat to a district, however, a vote for “the other” becomes a vote for another party. That other party has become the DPJ.

“[Former Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi delayed the inevitable collapse of the LDP for five years,” says Curtis, who says that after Koizumi left office the failure of his reforms became more apparent. Following the end of Koizumi’s term in 2006, Japan has had three prime ministers in as many years. “The public was waiting for chance to show their dissatisfaction, which is why they had no election, because [Shinzo] Abe, [Yasuo] Fukuda and Aso knew that they would lose. So, they put it off until the very last moment,” says Curtis. “And lo and behold, they’re going to lose.”

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