Political quake shakes Japan

Ruling party set to lose 50-year grip on power as rise in unemployment expected to dominate election
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The Independent Online

Japan is bracing itself for the most dramatic shift in its political scene of the post-war era when voters go to the polls tomorrow.

Figures released yesterday show unemployment hitting 5.7 per cent in July, the highest since records began, and, with a new deflationary spiral threatening severe damage to living standards, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated Japanese politics since 1955, is expected to be swept from power by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Opinion polls predict that the centre-left DPJ is expected to win as many as 320 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives, the more powerful of the two chambers in the parliament. Japan may no longer be in recession technically but it has suffered two decades of anaemic growth and a ballooning fiscal deficit, with public debt set to hit a staggering 190 per cent of gross domestic product this year, according to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.

Almost 35 per cent of Japan's 55 million workers are so-called "non-regular employees", figures from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry show.

This segment of the workforce, which includes part-time workers, workers dispatched by temporary staffing services and others on fixed-term contracts, has been hardest hit by the global economic downturn, with almost 230,000 having lost or being expected to lose their jobs in the period from October to September, show July statistics from the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry. By comparison, the job-loss figure for regular workers – those holding the famous "lifetime" contracts – in the same period was a little more than 41,000.

An indication that Japan is on the threshold of a political cataclysm came in the form of figures for early votes cast, ballots marked in the five days after official campaigning for the election began on 18 August.

These totalled just more than three million, a third more than the early votes cast in the same period in the previous lower house election in 2005, an eloquent indication of the strength of interest in this year's race.

But while the DPJ, under its leader, Yukio Hatoyama can surely be expected to be the beneficiary of most of these early ballots, voter surveys indicate low expectations for a DPJ government.

A poll in the Asahi newspaper shows only 24 percent of respondents believed that a change of government would break the mould of politics-as-usual. It appears that, for Japanese voters, anything is better than the present state of affairs, but they are pessimistic about the prospects for a radical improvement.

The DPJ's ambitious election manifesto, whose slogan is "Putting People's Lives First,"pledges generous child benefits, pension reform, free public-school education, income subsidies for farmers, the elimination of wasteful pork-barrel spending, the abolition of expressway tolls, and foreign policy continuity. But the most sweeping change it promises is to transfer decision-making power from the bureaucracy to lawmakers, creating "a horizontal society bound by human ties, not a vertically connected society of vested interests", in the words of Mr Hatoyama.

"Hatoyama should take time to form his own cabinet of policy experts," Shozo Azuma, a former senior state secretary for foreign affairs and the DPJ's candidate for Tokyo Constituency No 15, said yesterday. The traditional method of cabinet selection in Japan – doling out portfolioson the basis of seniority and factional affiliation – is part of the problem, he said. A DPJ government, Mr Azuma added, "would, first of all, change Japan in the eyes of foreign nations". While his party has quietly shelved plans to review the cornerstone Japan-US security alliance, "We'll maintain it as it is now", Mr Azuma said, Mr Hatoyama should "tailor a national strategy" that is not necessarily wholly beholden to the postwar diplomatic model.

"These elections are, at a minimum, the most important since 1993," the veteran Japan analyst Karel von Wolferen said, referring to the year when the LDP briefly lost power. As von Wolferen sees it, the key to the DPJ's success or failure, should it take the reins of government, lies in whether it can wrest power from the hands of the bureaucracy. "If the DPJ is too revolutionary, the bureaucracy will try to bring the government down," he said, but added: "The DPJ has grown into a credible political party. This time, it's for real."

Even Japan's minority parties benefit from the LDP's unpopularity. On a sleepy afternoon last Sunday, a Japanese Communist Party JCP) member, Chuhei Ogura, was making a speech atop his campaign truck in a shabby housing estate in dormitory suburb a 40-minute train ride from Tokyo.

He may have had only cicadas and a reporter for an audience, but his party's message that radical measures are needed to tackle rising social inequality and unemployment resonates with an electorate fed up with more than half a century of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

Opinion polls show that Mr Ogura's party can expect to add only a few seats to the nine it held in the last parliament. But its rising fortunes – it has reported adding adding 1,000 new members a month – is a bellwether of voter discontent.

"It used to be the case that when young people lost their jobs, they'd blame themselves," Mr Ogura said. "Now they blame the government."