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Japan's new rulers

The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party is out; can the wnning Democratic Party of Japan live up to its leaders' campaign promises?

September 01, 2009

How do you say "throw the bums out" in Japanese? That's what Japanese voters did on Sunday, booting the Liberal Democratic Party that has ruled almost continuously for more than half a century and leaves now with the world's second-largest economy in sorry shape. The newly elected Democratic Party of Japan is an eclectic mix of leftists and defectors from the ruling party. Its ability to run the country is untested, and its leaders have yet to explain how to pay for their populist campaign promises.

Nevertheless, this page sees the election upset as a potentially positive development. A one-party state is bound to grow stale; competition is as important in politics as it is in business.

The outgoing Liberal Democratic Party helped turn Japan from a post-World War II wreck into a global powerhouse. In league with industry and a powerful government bureaucracy, the ruling party oversaw decades of growth that offered its citizens lifelong jobs with housing and healthcare. But that system has been unraveling since the Japanese economy collapsed in the 1990s. Now, government scandals, recession, unemployment and an aging population's deep anxiety about the future have prompted voters who normally value stability to reject the known and embrace the promise of change.

Although the Democratic Party has never held power, key members come from the political elite, starting with leader Yukio Hatoyama, who is expected to be named prime minister. His grandfather is a founder of the just-defeated Liberal Democratic Party, and Hatoyama himself was a legislator. Other party members also have served in the Legislature or held Cabinet posts. At the same time, the party and the country should benefit from an infusion of new political blood, including many first-time legislators and more women. About a third of the 480 seats in the lower house will be filled by newcomers.

This kind of change is necessary but not sufficient to fix Japan's problems. During the campaign, the Democratic Party promised support for families with children as well as reduced taxes and highway tolls. Some of the policies suggested a return to the past, such as offering subsidies for farmers. Hatoyama must now explain how, with a public debt of 180% of gross domestic product, he hopes to expand the social safety net without bankrupting the country.

Hatoyama has said that Japan must strengthen its economic and security ties with East Asia. Americans should not be alarmed. China is Japan's largest trading partner, and the countries share a neighborhood. Such integration can help Japan's economic recovery without harming its ties to the U.S. A healthy Japanese economy is in everyone's interest.

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