Japan’s Election Landslide Expected to Produce Changes in Foreign Policy

By Patrick Goodenough | August 31, 2009 | 4:47 AM EDT

Yukio Hatoyama, victorious leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, appears on TV screens at a discount store in Tokyo on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

(CNSNews.com) – For the first time since World War II, Japanese voters on Sunday handed a parliamentary majority to a party other than the 54-year-old Liberal Democratic Party, paving the way for the world’s second biggest economy to be governed by a center-left coalition including socialists opposed to the military alliance with the U.S.
After sweeping to power, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader and premier-in-waiting Yukio Hatoyama planned to launch coalition negotiations as early as Monday with the leftist Social Democratic Party and the small center-right People’s New Party.
The DPJ was on track to win 308 seats in the 480-seat lower house, an increase of 195 seats. A coalition with its two allies would wield 318 seats, just short of a two-thirds majority. The LDP lost 177 seats, to take just 119, while its main coalition ally, New Komeito, held onto 21 seats, losing ten.
Under Japan’s electoral system, 300 members are elected from single-winner constituencies and the other 180 by proportional representation.
Hatoyama, 62, said early Monday the electorate had demonstrated its anger towards the LDP-led coalition and thanked voters for having “the courage to opt for change.” Prime Minister Taro Aso resigned from the LDP leadership to accept responsibility for its poor showing.
Hatoyama, whose grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama was one of the founding fathers of the LDP in 1955 and served three terms as prime minister, left the party in 1993 and joined the newly-formed DPJ five years later.
Barring any unexpected developments, he will be elected prime minister at a special session of parliament in mid-September and he may then visit the U.S. for the opening of the annual U.N. General Assembly and a G20 summit in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25-25.
A key challenge facing the new government will be tackling the worst recession in Japan’s post-war history.
Like the LDP, the DPJ has various ideological factions, and the makeup of the next cabinet will be closely watched for indications of Hatoyama’s policies, both at home and abroad. Although Hatoyama earlier indicated that coalition partners may be offered cabinet posts, the scale of the DPJ victory is expected to weaken the smaller parties’ negotiating power.
On the foreign policy front, left-leaning DPJ members want to scale down the U.S. military presence in Japan, although the party platform moderated its tone from earlier years, while calling for a more “equal” military alliance. Analysts say it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.
In a statement congratulating Japan on the election, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the administration welcomed “the opportunity to work with the new government in Tokyo to build upon our past successes and further cement this indispensable alliance.”
“We will work closely with the new Japanese government in moving toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, addressing the threat of climate change and increasing the availability of renewable energy, bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and addressing international humanitarian and health issues,” he said.
For the LDP the election was the most devastating defeat in its history. Since its founding, the party has only been out of power for one 11-month period in 1993-4, when an alliance of eight smaller parties formed a government.
But from a high point under former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, its decline accelerated under Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, each of whom served for only one year.
In 2007 the LDP lost control of the 242-member upper house of parliament to the DPJ, ushering in a period of legislative gridlock.
The next upper house election will be held next summer.
Impact on North Korean nuclear issue
South Korean commentators mulled the implications of Sunday’s election outcome for the multilateral effort to shut down North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, predicting that a DPJ-led government would be more accommodating and ease the process.
Japan is a key player in the “six-party” diplomatic drive, which also involves the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia as well as North Korea itself.
Of the parties involved in the discussions, Tokyo under LDP governments has been the most consistently uncompromising – “hard line” in the views of liberal critics – while South Korea, especially under its previous liberal president, the late Roh Moo-hyun, was the most willing to accommodate Pyongyang.
Of particular importance to Japan has been the issue of North Korea’s abduction of at least 17 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 80s, in some cases to be used to train Pyongyang’s spies in Japanese language and culture.
Kim Jong-il in 2002 admitted 13 of the abductions and allowed five of the victims to return to Japan but said the rest had died. Japan has demanded a full accounting ever since.
The Bush administration’s decision last fall to remove North Korea from its list of terror-sponsoring countries upset Japan, which had urged Washington to hold off until the abduction issue had been settled.
Tokyo’s stance more than once prompted North Korea to demand that Japan be excluded from the six-party talks.
“The conservative LDP government has long served as a barrier to the six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs by insisting on discussing the kidnapping issue,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said in a commentary Monday.
It remains to be seen, however, how the next government will handle the matter, which is still a highly sensitive one in Japan. In its election platform, the DPJ does say that a government  it leads would “make every effort to resolve” the abduction issue.
It also says that Japan will in cooperation with the international community, “take firm measures, including cargo inspections, to induce North Korea to abandon the development, possession, and deployment of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and missiles.”
Whether or not North Korea finds a less critical negotiating partner in Tokyo in the future, the one in Seoul has become considerably more so since Roh was succeeded by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last year.
Lee, whose election victory ended 10 years of left-liberal rule characterized by the “sunshine” policy of engagement with the North, has linked economic cooperation with Pyongyang to a resolution of the nuclear issue.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow