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Japan Gears Up for Election

A new political party could take the reins in Japan for the first time in than more than a decade. The Democratic Party, known as the DPJ, is likely to dominate the general election, expected to be held in September. A DPJ victory would oust the Liberal Democratic Party, which has led the government for most of the past 60 years. But there is little expectation of big policy shifts.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso came to power last September with dismal approval ratings for his Liberal Democratic Party. Former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda had just resigned after support for his Cabinet fell below 30 percent.

The LDP hoped a change in leadership would change the numbers. Yet nine months on, polls show Mr. Aso's support below 20 percent.

Chuo University Professor Stephen Reed says that is no surprise.

"They've [the LDP] basically been holding on all this time," Reed said. "They started with a huge majority and they've slowly been hanging on since. They basically ran out of tricks. It's no longer working."

DJP could score big victory

Reed says that will be shown in the Lower House Election, expected to be held in September. All 480 seats are up for grabs. Reed predicts a big win for the opposition Democratic Party or DPJ, and he is not alone.

The latest polls conducted by Japan's top newspapers show a majority support a DPJ-led government.

"There's a lot of people who are ready to say 'okay, I don't know if the Democrats can govern or not but I know the LDP cannot,'" Reed noted.

The conservative LDP has dominated Japanese politics for more than half a century now. Since the early 1950s, only three prime ministers have come from opposition parties, all leading brief coalition governments in the mid-1990s, the last ending in 1996.

Scandals plague LDP

But the LDP has faced one scandal after another since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi left office three years ago.

His successor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned in September 2007 following revelations that the government lost millions of pension files. And his successor, Mr. Fukuda, lasted only about a year.

Mr. Aso's Cabinet has had its share of scandals. In February Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa resigned after he appeared drunk at a G7 meeting news conference. His successor, Kaoru Yosano, now faces allegations he received illegal campaign donations.

Party dominance frustrates voters

This voter says there is something wrong with one party being in power for 50 years. He says he wants want to know what will change if voters put a different party in power.

But the DPJ has had its share of scandals as well. Last month, party leader Ichiro Ozawa resigned after one of his close aides was charged with accepting illegal campaign donations.

The scandals involving both the DPJ and the LDP cause voters like Kei Takikawa to question whether the two parties are any different.

He says LDP or DPJ, it does not matter. Both sides are just about accepting a lot of money and living the good life.

Reed says there are some differences.

Campaign promises

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama vows to cut bureaucratic waste and refuses to commit to a sales tax increase in the near future to fund social security programs. Mr. Aso favors sales tax increase over the next two years, when he expects the economy to recover. Hatoyama says he wants to stimulate the economy through tax breaks instead of the large infrastructure projects promoted by the LDP.

And he is pushing for reforms to the political process, vowing to eliminate corporation donations. He also wants to limit the widespread practice of inheriting political seats from family members.

Polls show voters are not impressed with either leader. Nearly half said neither Mr. Aso nor Hatoyama would make a good prime minister.

"The number of people who have high expectations for a Democratic [DPJ] government are almost zero," Reed said. "There just aren't that many people who think the Democratic government is going to do a good job. They just know that the LDP is going to do a bad job."

An attitude the DPJ is willing to accept, so long as it drives the party to victory.