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POLITICS-JAPAN: Untested New Regime Raises Fresh Hopes

TOKYO, Sep 1 2009 (IPS) - The stunning victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Sunday’s election has left Yasuyo Takahashi, a Tokyo suburb resident, more upbeat about the prospects for change in her country.

“We feel we now have a good chance to finally bring about changes in Japanese politics,” said the self-confessed apolitical mother of two primary school-age children whose newfound interest in politics just before the election helped turn the tide in favor of the opposition party.

?he Democratic Party—only 10 years old, a relative novice and untested—is projected to have more than doubled its seats in the House of Representatives to 308, winning a comfortable majority. The LDP seats, on the other hand, have considerably shrunk from 300 to 119.

Even before LDP’s 54-year grip on power came to a crushing end, hopes were already high that change was in the offing. This recurring theme during the campaign resonated so well with voters like Yasuyo, who were desperate for regime change.

“My friends and I suddenly turned into interested voters,” she said. Weeks before the historic election, she and her friends would discuss political issues at dinner table. They weighed candidates’ platforms and what these meant for them and their children—something they never did before, she added.

Yasuyo said that as mothers, they were particularly interested in the new government’s actions on increasing daycare centers and providing allowances for children as well as ensuring cheaper education costs. While groups like Yasuyo and her friends were engaged in vigorous discussions about the elections, others, particularly the youth, took visible initiatives all over Japan. Dozens of non-partisan student groups, for instance, marched on the streets calling on youths to vote. They also carried out campaigns in cyberspace, trying to pull voters out of their political apathy.

According to Kyodo News, a Tokyo-based news agency, turnout among voters aged 20 to 29 in the past elections had ranged only from 30 to 40 percent compared with 66.7 percent in the 1967 election. Those in their 60s, however, had comprised 70 to 80 percent of voters over the past three decades.

To encourage young voters to pledge online that they would vote, Kensuke Harada and his friends founded the ivote website. Along with many other youth groups that were organized before the elections, ivote also rallied young people behind the idea of voting and the promise that it held out. And vote they did, as evidenced by the huge turnout of voters come Election Day, a big chunk of whom comprised young voters.

“They must have felt they could make a difference in the election outcome and in Japanese politics even if they did not really expect its immediate impact on their daily lives,” said the 23-year-old political science student from the University of Tokyo.

“We were impressed by the election results,” said Kensuke.

As early as February, Kensuke and his peers began organising parties for young voters so they could meet and discuss vital issues with politicians of all stripes. The group successfully built a nationwide network with more than a dozen other groups to organise an election eve gathering in each of their target 15 cities, including the capital. On voting day, his group emailed a reminder to about 1,200 registered members to cast their ballots.

Although local media surveys had been predicting a dramatic power shift for the powerful 480-seat House of Representatives in Japan’s parliament, the eventual shakeout turned out to be even more surprising to many. “It is the historic end of LDP rule,” said popular broadcast commentator Soichiro Tahara during the Sunday night election coverage on television. Prime Minister Taro Aso conceded defeat shortly after the polls closed and acknowledged the people’s “disappointment” over his administration, which had been blamed for the economic woes besetting the country on top of other major issues.

Even many veteran LDP leaders and former and incumbent Cabinet ministers, including former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and current Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, lost out to younger and new Democratic party candidates in their own constituencies.

“It clearly swept many old guards of LDP from Japan’s political scene,” said Takashi Nishio, professor of public administration at Tokyo’s International Christian University (ICU). “Voters sought an alternative system for their own survival,” he told IPS. And this meant booting the “antiquated LDP out of power amid the greatest post-war crisis to have hit Japan.”

The crisis, he said, is not only economic in nature. Japanese are more anxious than ever about their security and well-being, especially with the advent of the swine flu or the A (H1N1) infection. He added that voters realized that the old system, where policies were crafted and carried out by powerful bureaucrats rather than lawmakers, was not going to protect them anymore. The world’s second largest economy posted the biggest contraction since the country’s economic crisis in 1974, at an annual rate of 12.7 percent during the period October-December last year. Despite the 0.9 percent gain on gross domestic product registered between April and June this year, the economic outlook remained gloomy for many people. Student leader Kensuke said his fellow youths’ interest in politics essentially evolved from the deteriorating economy, which made a huge dent in employment prospects.

Nishio said the DPJ’s manifesto listing specific policies gave voters clearer ideas about what they wanted in their new government. The Democrats, for instance, promised not to raise the consumption tax for four years to provide cash handouts for families with children as well as farmers. These will mean a monthly cash stipend of 26,000 yen (about 260 U.S. dollars) for every child under 15.

DPJ also pledged to make highways toll-free and dramatically cut wasteful government spending to facilitate funding for its planned programs.

The record high voter turnover of 69.28 percent, based on local media reports, in the just concluded election clearly reflected the intense public calls for change that contributed significantly to the opposition party’s impressive showing, commentators said.

Just as evident were the significant shifts in support by traditionally LDP-based and powerful sectors of voters, such as farmers, fisherfolk, medical doctors and even the provincial league of postmasters. Fragments of these groups had voiced their frustrations about the LDP in the past few years, so it did not come as a surprise to many when they openly supported the Democratic Party.

“The election outcome was the result of frustrations and complaints about the LDP that had accumulated for so long,” Aso said during a televised press conference when he acknowledged defeat to DPJ.

That Japan’s political establishment had been recently rocked by a pension scandal was one more reason for voter alienation from LDP. So was the high unemployment rate, which hit a record 5.7 percent just a month before the election. Even amid reports that the economy posted growth in the second quarter, thanks to short-term stimulus around the world, many voters were undeterred, unable to feel the impact of their country’s rebound from recession. Even older folk, who had also exhibited disenchantment with the ruling party, were equally adamant about the need for change in Japan’s political life.

“We would like to see more people-friendly leaders rule the country,” said a 94-year-old retired businessman and once an ardent LDP supporter, who asked not to be identified.

Now that the election is over and Yukio Hatoyama, head of the opposition party, is poised to become Japan’s next prime minister, the question foremost on the minds of many is: Will DPJ deliver on its promised change? This remains to be seen.

For now, feelings of euphoria and optimism are palpable in Japan. “Changes are taking place,” said Kensuke.

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