Opposition gains in Japan could herald two-party era
JAPAN took a major step towards two-party politics yesterday after the main opposition party made big gains in the country’s general election, taking votes from the government and smaller parties.
The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the country for most of the last half century, lost its absolute majority in parliament, although with the help of its coalition parties will stay in power.
However, the Democrats won 177 seats, up from 137, according to results collated by the country’s state broadcaster, ensuring they will have far more power to stand up to the government in parliament.
"I can barely speak," said a clearly pleased party leader Naoto Kan, hoarse and coughing after two weeks of intense campaigning. "We fought a great battle."
Before the election, the Democrats had 110 fewer seats than the LDP. Yesterday they narrowed that gap to 60.
Final results wouldn’t be reported by the government until today, but Mr Kan said he was "extremely happy" that his party had gained significant ground.
"Now our responsibility is to become a responsible leading opposition party and achieve the goal of taking power at the next opportunity," Mr Kan said.
The Democrats had challenged prime minister Junichiro Koizumi on some touchy issues, such as his economic reform record and his United States-guided policy on Iraq.
Mr Kan credited his party’s platform for yesterday’s gains.
"I think the voters appreciated our focus on policies, and I am pleased," Mr Kan said.
Some in the party with their sights set higher, however, were not as elated.
"We’re very disappointed because we had hoped to form a government around our party," the party’s secretary-general, Katsuya Okada, said.
Mr Koizumi had tried to answer some of the calls for reform by rebuilding his party. Relying on his popularity with voters, he has forced public works spending cuts on the LDP’s conservative core and adopted other policies resisted by the LDP’s traditional supporters.
Trying to inject youthful zest into the party, Mr Koizumi forced two octogenarian former prime ministers into retirement just last month, and appointed the telegenic Shinzo Abe his deputy.
Mr Koizumi acknowledged that the returns indicated the electorate was asking for something different.
"The LDP has been in power for a long time," the prime minister said. "The mood for change propelled the Democrats’ gains."
While Mr Koizumi was confident his coalition would win a majority, even he seemed surprised at the Democrats’ showing.
"I thought to myself that the Democrats are putting up a good fight," he said. "Maybe we’re really moving toward a two-party system."
The strong showing by the Democrats is likely to move Japan closer to the true two-party system many voters seem to want.
"This is the first time I have come here so early," said Masanori Ohmori, a 61-year-old retiree who arrived at a polling booth before it had even opened at 7am.
"I came because I felt this time that I can help bring about a change in leadership," he added.
The LDP has dominated politics in Japan by catering to core supporters such as farmers, small businesses and construction firms who have repaid them at the polls. But its traditional support base has eroded in recent years.
"I usually vote for the LDP, but this time I voted for the Democrats," said Koichi Kotake, 56, who works for a construction firm and lives in a suburb east of Tokyo. "I had big expectations for Mr Koizumi, but economic reforms are not working under the LDP, so I voted for change."
An increasing number of "floating voters" have also grown cool to the LDP, depriving it of a majority in the 1993, 1996 and 2000 elections.
Analysts said that while Japan was moving closer to a system in which government could alternate between two major parties, it was not there yet.
"What this election means is that Japan is developing a German system of two big parties and one smaller party," said Columbia University professor, Gerald Curtis, referring to the LDP, the Democrats and LDP’s junior partner, the New Komeito.
Many voters, however, still believe that Mr Koizumi is the man to push through the reforms.
"It’s better to keep the LDP in power. They’re doing a fine job. Koizumi is carrying out reforms, as he said he would," said Tokuji Ishida, 80, outside a Tokyo polling station.
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