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Japanese Parties Vie for Votes with Promises of Helping Families

The Japanese are set to elect a new government three weeks from now, August 30. The Democratic Party of Japan is expected to end the ruling party's five-decade hold on power. The Democrats are gaining momentum in the polls by promising voters more money in their wallets and less in the hands of bureaucrats. The ruling party calls that vision a "dream."

Different platforms, different strategies

The political campaign ads alone show a contrast in strategies between Japan's major parties.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan calls on people to treat the country like family. Party leader Yukio Hatoyama promises a society that "creates bonds."

There is no sign of Prime Minister Taro Aso in his Liberal Democratic Party's ad. Just four Japanese characters that read "Sei-Ken Kou-Tai" or "change in government", which is the DPJ's campaign pitch. The narrator asks what change really means, and then adds, "we demand action."

The Liberal Democratic Party hopes it can cast enough doubt on its challenger so voters forget its own problems. Since the last general election, the LDP has been hit by a series of scandals and has seen two prime ministers resign with dismal approval ratings.

PM Aso's approval ratings plummets

Approval ratings for current leader Mr. Aso have plummeted, in part because of the country's severe recession, which has pushed the unemployment rate to a six-year high.

LDP member Kuniko Inoguchi describes the prime minister's challenge.

"He needs to say this: There is no one single policy that can get us out of this recession. There will need to be a set of programs and he has done everything he can to install those policies," said Inoguchi.

Those policies start with a promise to create two million new jobs in the next three years, and a pledge to boost disposable income by about a thousand dollars for each household in the next decade.

Mr. Aso also promises to reduce education fees for young children and create a scholarship program to help pay for high school and university education. Those proposals are aimed at tackling the country's falling birthrate. He plans to pay for those programs and help fund social security by raising the sales tax to five percent.

The party platform has not brought the LDP more support so far, but Yukari Sato, an LDP member of parliament, expects that to change. He says voters will realize the DPJ lacks substantive policies to back up its call for change.

"This is not just about the four-letter word "Sei-Ken Kou-Tai" or administration change. It is so easy to hum but it is not easy to digest as a nation," he said.

But the LDP is fighting a tough battle. Although it has dominated Japanese politics since the early 1950s, over the past few years, its scandals, lackluster leaders and nearly 19 years of weak economic performance have undermined its support.

Hatoyama's populist message boosts DPJ

The momentum is on the side of the DPJ, where Hatoyama is finding traction with his populist message. He promises to cut the sales tax on cars, cut taxes for home buyers and lower road tolls. He also promises free high school education and a monthly allowance for children under the age of 15. Combined, his programs are estimated to cost nearly $180 billion.

Takashi Uesugi is a journalist and a former aide to senior LDP politician Kunio Hatoyama, who is the brother of the DPJ leader. Uesugi says the DPJ proposals appeal to those who are tired of the LDP.

He says Hatoyama may be popular, but voters are not necessarily supporting his policies. They are sending a message to the LDP: "they have had enough."

The election will be held August 30, and the latest polls show Hatoyama's party leading by a double-digit margin. If the party maintains that lead, and many political analysts expect it to, he will become the first prime minister from the DPJ, and only the third who was not a member of the LDP since the 1950s.