TOKYO – Breaking a half-century hammerlock of one-party rule in Japan, the opposition Democratic Party won a crushing election victory on Sunday with pledges to revive the country’s stalled economy and to steer a foreign-policy course less dependent on the United States.
But it was pent-up voter anger, not campaign promises, that halted 54 years of near-continuous dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party. The party had become a profoundly unpopular, but deeply entrenched, governing force that so feared it would be swept from power that it had put off a national election for nearly three years.
In a record landslide on a rainy day, voters awarded 308 seats in the powerful 480-seat lower house of parliament to a slightly left-of-center opposition party formed by disaffected LDP veterans. It is led by Yukio Hatoyama, 62, a Stanford-trained engineer who will probably be chosen prime minister in mid-September.
“I believe all the people were feeling a great rage against the current government,” Hatoyama said. “Everything starts now. We can finally do politics that the people are building their hopes on. My heart is too full for words.”
Japan was the postwar wonder that grew into the world’s second-largest economy. But it became enfeebled and directionless in the latter years of the LDP’s watch, with stagnant wages and sputtering growth, the worrying rise of the world’s oldest population and a monstrous government debt that will soon be double the gross national product. Unemployment set a record last week; the economy shrank for much of the past year at nearly twice the U.S. rate.
For these failings, voters seemed eager to punish the LDP and its unpopular leader, Prime Minister Taro Aso. Aso said today he would step down as head of the ruling party, the Associated Press reported.
Judging from polls and voter interviews, the opposition won not because of its attractive policies or charismatic leadership. “It is not really that I am voting for the Democratic Party,” said Atsushi Neriugawa, 49, owner of a consulting company, after voting in Tokyo. “I simply want power to change. If the Democratic Party happens to be no good, then I will revert back to LDP.”
Hatoyama said the party will meet today to form a coalition with two smaller parties. The coalition would give the Democratic Party and its allies more than a two-thirds majority in the lower house, enabling it to pass into law bills rejected by the upper house.
The election marked the first time in postwar Japan that an opposition party seized power with a majority in a national election.
The Democratic Party has pushed for greater independence for Japan from the United States, which has about 50,000 military personnel stationed here and is treaty-bound to defend the country from attack. But in recent weeks leaders have said they will not seek major foreign policy changes. Hatoyama said the U.S.-Japan alliance would “continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy.”