TOPICS > Politics

Japanese Election a Major Turning Point for World’s No. 2 Economy

BY Online DA  August 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama and Secretary General Katusya Okada smile Sunday; KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty

In a landslide election that saw turnout near 70 percent, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan won 308 of the 480 seats in the Parliament’s powerful lower house. The incumbent Liberal Democratic Party was reduced to 119 seats from 300. The more liberal DPJ also maintained its control of the Parliament’s upper house.

“This has been a revolutionary election,” Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the DPJ and presumptive new prime minister, told reporters. “The people have shown the courage to take politics into their own hands.”

The DPJ victory marks an historic turning point in Japanese politics, as the LDP has ruled the nation for all but 11 months since 1955. Japan grew into the world’s second-largest economy under LDP rule, but a mix of stagnant wages and shrinking economic growth, coupled with record unemployment and a rapidly ageing population were too much for the party, and its leader, Prime Minister Taro Aso, to overcome. Following the election, Aso called his party’s defeat “very severe.”

“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.”

Japan is expected to remain a strong U.S. ally under DPJ rule, albeit one that is more assertive toward Washington. In its campaign manifesto, the DPJ calls for an “equal partnership” with the U.S., as well as a “reconsidering” of the 50,00-strong American military presence in Japan.

“Until now, Japan has acted to suit U.S. convenience,” Hatoyama said in a TV appearance before Sunday’s contest. “But rather than doing so, Japan-U.S. relations should be on an equal footing so that our side can strongly assert Japan’s will.”

Despite such assertions, the White House issued a statement Sunday saying it was “confident that the strong U.S.-Japan alliance and the close partnership between our two countries will continue to flourish.”

“This is what happens when you have a government in Japan that must be responsive to public opinion,” Daniel C. Sneider, an East Asia expert at Stanford University told the New York Times. “It will end the habits from decades of a relationship in which Japan didn’t challenge the United States.”

At the same time, analysts expect the new government to be more active on the world stage, likely to play a greater role on issues such as climate change and United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Hatoyama is expected to assemble a new government within three weeks.