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August 31, 2009

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Japanese opposition romps home

JAPANESE voters swept the opposition to a historic victory in the national election yesterday, ousting the long-ruling conservative party and handing the novice Democrats the job of reviving a struggling economy.

The win by the Democratic Party of Japan ends more than a half century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party and breaks a deadlock in parliament.

It ushers in a government that has promised to focus spending on consumers, cut wasteful budget outlays and reduce bureaucratic powers.

But the untested party will have to move quickly to keep support among voters worried about a record jobless rate and a rapidly aging society inflating social security costs.

"The people are angry with politics now and the ruling coalition. We felt a great sense of people wanting change in their livelihoods and we fought this election for a change in government," said DPJ Leader Yukio Hatoyama.

Media projections showed the Democrats set for a landslide win, possibly taking two-thirds of the seats in parliament's powerful 480-member lower house. That matched earlier forecasts of a drubbing for Prime Minister Taro Aso's LDP.

The ruling party loss ended a three-way partnership between the LDP, big business and bureaucrats that turned Japan into an economic juggernaut after the country's defeat in World War II.

That strategy foundered when Japan's "bubble" economy burst in the late 1980s and growth has stagnated since.

Financial markets wanted an end to a stalemate in parliament, where the Democrats and their allies control the less powerful upper chamber and can delay bills. However, bond yields may rise if a new government increases spending.

Media exit polls showed the DPJ had won about 320 lower house seats - almost triple its 115 before the election.

The LDP slumped to just over 100 seats from 300.

Aso said he took responsibility for the defeat, adding an LDP vote to pick a successor should be held soon.

The mood at LDP headquarters was grim after many party stalwarts, including cabinet ministers, lost seats.

Support for the LDP, which swept to a huge election win in 2005 on charismatic leader Junichiro Koizumi's pledges of reform, has crumbled due to scandals, policy flip-flops and a perceived inability to address the problems of the aging population.

Hatoyama, 62, the wealthy grandson of a former prime minister, often invoked change during the campaign, a theme that resonated with voters, even if they were unsure his party would pull Japan out of its worst recession in 60 years.

"I don't like what's going on in this country. Things have to change," said Kazuya Tsuda, 78, a retired doctor in Tokyo who voted for the DPJ.

The DPJ has pledged to refocus spending on households with child allowances and aid for farmers while taking control of policy from bureaucrats, often blamed for Japan's failure to tackle problems such as a creaking pension system.

The DPJ wants to forge a diplomatic stance more independent of the United States, raising concerns about possible friction in the alliance.

"The LDP is probably going to be missed more in Washington than in Japan," said Michael Auslin at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The DPJ has vowed to build better ties with the rest of Asia, often strained by bitter wartime memories.

"The Democrats have a positive attitude toward relations with China," said Liu Jiangyong, a Japan expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"But there are still problems in bilateral relations, which need hard work from both sides to resolve."


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