Calls for fast action in Japan after historic vote
By ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press Writer
TOKYO – The morning after a historic victory by Japan's opposition party in national elections, pressure was already mounting Monday for quick, definitive action on a host of problems facing the country, with jump-starting the economy at the top of the list.
The country is mired in its worst economic slump since World War II, caught in deflation and with unemployment at record levels. Widespread voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party's efforts at a turnaround led to a landslide victory for the opposition.
Monday morning news broadcasts ran nonstop coverage of the election blowout, with winning politicians leading their supporters in cheers of "banzai" and solemn shots of grim-faced lawmakers that had been ousted. Every major newspaper fronted pictures of Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the victorious Democratic Party of Japan and a near lock to become Japan's next prime minister.
But even before the final government tally of election results were released Monday morning, calls were being made for immediate action.
"Answer the expectations and responsibilities for change," said an editorial in the Yomiuri, the country's largest newspaper.
"The new government has presented showpiece policies but the source of funding remains unclear," said the Nikkei, Japan's main business paper, in its own editorial.
Hatoyama and his party — an eclectic mix of former members of the ruling party, socialists and progressives — face a daunting array of challenges, economic and demographic.
"This is a victory for the people," said Hatoyama. "We want to build a new government that hears the voices of the nation."
A grim-looking Prime Minister Taro Aso conceded defeat just a couple hours after polls had closed, suggesting he would quit as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for all but 11 months since 1955.
"The results are very severe," Aso said. "There has been a deep dissatisfaction with our party."
Japan's economy has been hit hard amid the global recession and falling demand for its exports. The unemployment rate has spiked to a record 5.7 percent and younger workers have watched the promise of lifetime employment fade. Incomes are stagnant and families have cut spending.
The country also faces threats as its population ages, which means more people are on pensions and there is a shrinking pool of taxpayers to support them and other government programs.
The Democrats' plan to give families 26,000 yen ($275) a month per child through junior high is meant to ease parenting costs and encourage more women have babies. Japan's population of 127.6 million peaked in 2006, and is expected to fall below 100 million by the middle of the century.
The Democrats are also proposing toll-free highways, free high schools, income support for farmers, monthly allowances for job seekers in training, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. The estimated bill comes to 16.8 trillion yen ($179 billion) if fully implemented starting in fiscal year 2013 — and critics say that will only further bloat Japan's already massive public debt.
In foreign relations, the Democrats have said they want Tokyo to be more independent from Washington on diplomatic issues, though they have stressed that the U.S. will remain Japan's key ally and that they want to keep relations good, while also strengthening ties with their Asian neighbors.
Official nationwide results were expected to be announced midmorning Monday, but a number of media outlets said Monday that the Democrats had won 308 of the 480 seats in the lower house to the LDP's 119, citing local election results. Other parties and independent candidates won a total of 53.
The Democratic Party needed to win a simple majority of 241 seats in the lower house to ensure it could name the next prime minister. The 300-plus level would allow it and its two smaller allies the two-thirds majority they need in the lower house to pass bills.
"It's a historic election in that a clear alternation of power has happened for the first time in the postwar period," said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. "It's hard to know whether this is going to lead to a real change in policy, at least for the short term."
The loss was only the second the Liberal Democratic Party — traditionally the champion of big business and conservative interests — has suffered since it was founded in 1955. The only other time it was out of power was for less than 11 months in 1993-1994, and that was to a coalition of eight parties that quickly collapsed.
The LDP had survived through previous recessions in Japan but since then families have grown less secure about the future.
With only two weeks of official campaigning that focused mainly on broad-stroke appeals rather than specific policies, many analysts said the elections were not so much about issues as voters' general desire for something new after more than a half century under the LDP.
"All the bad things over the last 54 years finally caught up to them," said Fumio Morita, 45, who runs a bar in Tokyo. "It's good that they are no longer in power."
Japan has had three prime ministers in three years, all of whom were deeply unpopular for their perceived lack of leadership and for failing to get the country out of its deepening economic morass.
The LDP tried to fight back by reminding voters that their party led the nation out of the ashes of World War II. They also argued that the Democrats, who have never run the government, were irresponsible and inept.
Hatoyama's party, which already controls the upper house with two allies, held 112 seats in the lower house before parliament was dissolved in July. The LDP had held 300 seats.
Associated Press reporters Mari Yamaguchi, Kelly Olsen, Shino Yuasa and Tomoko Hosaka contributed to this report.