After Decades, Japan Prepares for Likely New Ruling Party
TOKYO - Japanese voters finally seem willing to oust the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party. But after decades of a virtual one-party state, the Japanese now are confronting what a change of power would actually mean.
Opinion polls show the main opposition Democratic Party heading into national elections on Sunday with a widening lead over the Liberal Democrats, who have governed Japan almost continuously since 1955. Voters are turning to the opposition out of disgust with what they see as the unresponsive Liberal Democrats and their bungled handling of Japan's economy - which has led to nearly 20 years of stagnation and the loss of Japan's once proud status as an economic superpower.
The opposition is now scrambling to prove it deserves this long-awaited chance, and can take the country in a new direction - strengthening the social safety net to ease growing inequalities, and perhaps keeping slightly more distance from the United States.
But the Democratic Party's biggest appeal may be its promise to transform Japanese politics by making them more transparent and responsive. It vows to do so by ending the Liberal Democrats' backroom style of rule and their over-reliance on Tokyo's powerful central bureaucracy, which sets policy on the governing party's behalf.
"More than the policies, we want to change the very dynamism of Japanese politics," Katsuya Okada, the Democratic Party's secretary general, said in an interview. "Just having a transition of power will by itself make a huge difference."
The possibility of such a transition, after more than a half-century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democrats, has gripped the nation's attention. A poll released Monday by the national broadcaster NHK showed that 90 percent of voters intended to cast their ballot, far above the 68 percent turnout in the last lower house election four years ago.
Voters' expectations seem limited about what the Democrats would achieve, given their inexperience and often lackluster leadership. After years of struggle to build a coherent party from a broad spectrum of conservative splinter groups and former leftists founded in 1998, the Democrats' platform is not very different from the Liberal Democrats.
Neither the opposition nor the incumbents have fully addressed longstanding problems facing Japan, such as paying for a rapidly aging population despite soaring deficits.
Rather, the hope here is if voters do hand the Democrats a victory, that could infuse new blood into a political system that has grown increasingly sclerotic under Liberal Democratic rule. That brings a bigger question: Is Japan ready for a more contentious brand of politics, in which voters decide between political parties, and parties in turn wield real power?
Ever since Japan's emergence as a modern state more than a century ago, political parties have tended to be a sideshow to the real business of running the country, which has been left to bureaucrats. It has not helped that Japan, despite being East Asia's oldest representative political system, never seized democracy through a popular uprising, as in neighboring South Korea.
Instead, its modern constitutions and parliamentary systems were bestowed from above, first by samurai reformers in the name of the emperor in the late 19th century, and then by American occupiers after defeat in World War II.
The result has been a politically apathetic public. Now, political analysts say the biggest significance of a Democratic Party victory would be demonstrating to Japanese voters that they can actually shape the direction of their nation.
"Just having choice will bring a huge, huge change in the political culture of Japan," said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University. "This is a country that has great potential. What it has lacked is leadership, and politicians who can paint a picture of what a bright future looks like."
The Democrats claim they can paint just such a picture. But they face an uphill battle.
Reining in the bureaucracy means taking on an elite group of top achievers in Japan that actually writes laws and has served as a permanent government - even though it has come under fire for failing to combat the long downturn. Politicians' past efforts to wrest control from bureaucrats have usually failed, in part because they have traditionally been looked down upon as self-interested and corrupt.
A result is a shortage of strong, charismatic political leaders who could make a case for change, in either party.
Only about a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers have ever held top government posts, and most of those defected from the Liberal Democrats. That includes the party leader, Yukio Hatoyama, 62, a Stanford-trained engineer who served as deputy cabinet secretary in the only other non-Liberal Democratic government, which fell apart in 1994 after 11 months in office.
Mr. Hatoyama, who is likely to become prime minister if his party wins, is seen as a consensus builder who will work to maintain party unity and avoid a strong personal imprint on its policies. Mr. Okada, a popular 56-year-old former Trade Ministry bureaucrat known for his no-nonsense style, represents a younger generation of Democratic lawmakers less tainted by association with the governing party.
"They're going to send hundreds of inexperienced lawmakers to try to lord it over these entrenched bureaucrats," said Atsuo Ito, an independent political analyst who wrote a book on the Democratic Party. "The bureaucracy survived World War II, and it survived the postwar American occupation. It will survive Mr. Hatoyama."
Still, the Democrats have been trying to seize the moment by tapping Japan's simmering discontent. The party has tried to position itself as the choice for voters fed up with rising social inequalities, stagnating wages and other changes for which many blame economic globalization. It recently issued a manifesto pledging new spending of $177 billion a year. While economists have characterized the Democrats as slightly left of center, and the incumbents as slightly to the right, both parties are promising new social spending to win key blocs like farmers, who were alienated by the small-government reforms of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Another criticism leveled at the Democrats is their lack of experience, particularly in national security and diplomacy. That has drawn the attention of the United States - last month, an American assistant secretary of state met party officials to learn more about the Democrats' foreign policy stance, which calls for a greater focus on Asia while building an "equal partnership" with Washington, Japan's traditional protector.
Mr. Okada said in his interview that a Democratic government would consider ending the Japanese Navy's refueling of American and allied warships in the Indian Ocean, which has been unpopular here. He said it would also seek to revise the agreement governing the legal status of the some 50,000 United States service members in Japan to reduce friction with Japanese communities near American bases.
He stressed that the American presence would remain largely unchanged, as would the overall relationship with Washington.
"There is no need to worry about Japan-American relations," Mr. Okada said.
Indeed, the party seems to be going to great pains to stress that it would be realistic if given a chance to rule. But it has not helped its cause by seeming to flip-flop on central issues, such as a promise in the manifesto to sign a free-trade deal with the United States that the party later watered down after criticism by farmers.
The Democrats say that they have practiced for rule by setting up their own "shadow cabinets" and using their shared control of Parliament's upper house with other opposition parties to write and submit their own legislation.
Some predict that the Democrats' biggest challenge will be simply trying to hold together despite its deep ideological cleavages. This is what doomed the last non-Liberal Democratic government. At the time, too, Japan had suffered through only a few years of economic stagnation, not the decade of decline that is helping drive voters away from the governing party.
"The opposition wasn't ready then, mentally or in organization," said Masayoshi Takemura, chief cabinet secretary in that government. "They've had 15 years to get their act together."