Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

Japan’s Election Heats Up

In just three weeks, Japanese voters may upend more than half a century of political rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) continues to lead overwhelmingly in polls for the lower house elections, though the latest numbers show a minor shrinking of the gap, with the DPJ holding a 39 percent–22 percent advantage. That leaves nearly 40 percent of the electorate either supporting other parties or undecided. Moreover, only 26 percent of Japanese polled supported the DPJ in general as a political party. While the LDP may find it nearly impossible to win at this stage, the DPJ is by no means assured of gaining a majority, raising the specter of further political paralysis and continuing coalition governments.

The dynamics of this contest are unique since this is the first time the election is about the DPJ and its ability to govern, and not about whether the LDP can retain its hold on power. Anything can happen, obviously, but even voters who want change will be looking at whether the DPJ can present itself as a viable ruling party—not unlike the challenge faced by Barack Obama in last year’s presidential election. Thus, even with their big lead, the next three weeks are crucial to the DPJ’s prospects, as expectations for how party president Yukio Hatoyama will rule become tied to specific issues.

While the overall polls show a major DPJ lead, voters are actually split on the contending parties’ strengths. Not surprisingly, the DPJ holds a commanding majority on the question of which party receives higher voter expectation on economic matters, by a 47 percent–31 percent margin. Yet on diplomacy and security issues, the ratio is completely reversed, with 49 percent of voters supporting the LDP’s position, versus just 29 percent for the DPJ.

With the LDP’s failure to resolve Japan’s economic crisis, and with unemployment reaching a six-year high of 5.4 percent, little wonder that Prime Minister Taro Aso is finding no traction on the issue closest to voters’ hearts. The DPJ’s election manifesto is heavy on domestic issues, both economic and social, giving voters the specifics lacking in its discussion of foreign policy. This election remains the DPJ’s to lose, but almost certainly the hard part will come after August 30.

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