Tomorrow Japan goes to the polls and there seems almost no chance that Taro Aso will be returned as Prime Minister. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is because the DPJ (Democratic Part of Japan) ran a great election campaign, put forward excellent policies or their leader Yukio Hatayama is hugely popular.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated Japanese politics for around 50 years and in fact has been in power during most of that time. But since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as Prime Minister in 2006 the party has managed to cycle through leaders at a rate of about one a year and has done all it can to ensure it is voted out of office.
Taro Aso who took over as Prime Minister less than a year ago is one of the most unpopular political figures in Japan and it seems every time he speaks he either offends someone, or appears out of touch with the majority of people. Even if you turn the volume down on the television and just watch his mannerisms and facial expressions he appears arrogant.
To be fair he is probably a fairly interesting chap and someone I would not mind having a drink with. But he just does not seem to be the type of person who warms hearts or thinks a great deal before he speaks. His verbal gaffes are almost legendary and recently for example he suggested that poor men should probably not marry.
Even if the Prime Minister was more popular the LDP would still be facing an uphill battle with unemployment now at a record high 5.7 and the Japanese economy struggling to recover. It is simply not the best time to be having an election for the government.
More often than not people in Japan are pretty apathetic when it comes to elections and voting is not compulsory. But this election seems to have stirred widespread interest and I sense it is more of a rally to oust the LDP than to vote in the DPJ.
In other words it is not a case of Yukio Hatayama and the DPJ being chosen because they are seen as the most capable people to run the country, but rather that Taro Aso and the LDP are so disliked.
But will a new government lead by the DPJ with Yukio Hatayama as Prime Minister really change anything in Japan? My guess is that there will be some small changes but probably not as far reaching as the DPJ would probably like. But even small changes can make a big difference.
The DPJ has pledged to take on government bureaucrats who they say wield too much power. But of you take on the public service then it makes it fairly difficult to get policies converted into actions, so I would guess the verbal bashing of bureaucrats will be toned down once the new government is formed.
One area I hope the DPJ can deliver on is their commitment to increase support for families in an effort to increase the birth rate in Japan. The LDP failed to come up with a comprehensive package to support families and this is probably a good indicator of how out of touch the party has become with mainstream views.
The DPJ on the other hands has set out plans to increase payments to families with children, make high school tuition free and increase spending on child care. Their focus on families will be a major vote winner and will help them win the election by a healthy margin.
However the DPJ’s proposal to scrap highway tolls seems at odds with it’s commitment to reduce C02 emissions and my guess is that this policy will be either watered down or scrapped once the DPJ led government is in power.
By far the most interesting policy area to watch with be related to the relationship with the United States especially in regards to the hosting of U.S. forces in Japan. Already the DPJ has mentioned that it will try and modify the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), but I would guess that they would like to see an overall decrease in the size of the U.S forces based in Japan as well.
In simple terms the SOFA means that Japan pays for U.S. forces to be based in the country and provides the land for U.S bases. The SOFA is a drain on the Japanese economy, not popular with the public and is heavily skewed in the favour of the United States. I would suggest that rather than tweaking the SOFA a complete overhaul is needed, however that might be pushing things too far at this stage.
The biggest change in Japan however will be in the mood of the people. One feels that when the nation realises that Taro Aso and the LDP have been swept from power that there will be a sense of relief followed by renewed optimism. In the short term the stock market will probably get a lift and even consumer spending may rise.
If Yukio Hatayama can hold together a new government and deal with the economic challenges effectively, then there is a chance a whole new era may begin in Japan. Perhaps the best years as far as the economy is concerned are not behind Japan but lay in the future?
An invigorated Japan could be just the medicine the global economy needs to help it recover and help Asia become the dominant economic region in the 21st century. In any case, the next few years are going to be very interesting in the land of the rising sun.