(CNSNews.com) – Opinion polls ahead of weekend elections point to a political sea change in Japan. Although the party predicted to win by a large margin has in the past called for policies more independent of the U.S., analysts are unsure whether to expect significant changes to Tokyo’s foreign policy.
The party that has governed Japan since the 1950 – with the exception of 11 months in the early 1990s – looks set to be soundly defeated in Sunday’s election for the powerful lower house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament.
From a high point under popular prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in the first half of the decade, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has seen its fortunes plunge under his three hapless successors, lost control of the upper house in 2007 and according to polls, will now relinquish the lower house. Under Japan’s system, the majority party in the lower house chooses the prime minister.
The beneficiary will be the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a party comprising conservative, centrist and left-wing factions, and led by Yukio Hatoyama.
A poll in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper Thursday indicated the DPJ may even secure a two-thirds majority in the 480-seat legislature, a position that would enable it to push through legislation irrespective of upper house approval. The daily did say, however, that around three in ten poll respondents did not indicate a voting intention.
Under its previous leader, Ichiro Ozawa – who resigned last May over a campaign fundraising scandal involving a top aide but remains influential – the DPJ called for a shift in foreign policy. Ozawa in particular opposed a naval mission in support of counter-terror operations in and around Afghanistan after 9/11, in which Japanese vessels refuel U.S. and other coalition warships in the Indian Ocean.
The DPJ’s 2005 election manifesto pledged to “do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with U.S. wishes, replacing it with a mature alliance based on independence and equality.”
The 2009 platform position has been modified. It says the DPJ wants a “close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance to serve as the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy,” while strengthening Japan’s ties in Asia, especially with China and South Korea.
Hatoyama, a Stanford University-educated former LDP lawmaker and grandson of a former prime minister, is also on record as saying the DPJ places “top priority” on the alliance with the U.S.
Michael Green, who holds the Japan Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Hatoyama “is trying to strike a balance with the left by using vague promises of a more ‘equal’ or ‘balanced’ alliance, while keeping the right on board by putting off all decisions he can on security relations with Washington.”
He noted that most Japanese support the U.S.-Japan alliance, and said it was one thing to snipe at the government for its foreign policies while in opposition but “quite another to put the alliance at risk when in power.”
Green said the election was more about the LDP’s unpopularity than the popularity of the DPJ and its policies. It remained to be seen whether a DPJ victory ushered in short term political change – like the brief period when the LDP was out of power in 1993 – or would “fundamentally realign Japanese politics.”
He expected a DPJ government to focus mostly on domestic economic issues designed to win further support ahead of upper house elections scheduled for next year.
“If the DPJ government survives and wins big in the upper house next year, then the mainstream leaders can dump the socialists and move to the center from where they can dominate Japanese politics the way the LDP had for six decades.”
One name to watch out for is Seiji Maehara, 47, a leader of one of the party’s conservative factions. Green says he is regarded a hawk on national security but is opposed by the party’s left wing.
“If he becomes foreign or defense minister, Japan will likely have a more assertive security policy.”
Citing the DPJ’s ideological factions, Heritage Foundation scholar Bruce Klingner said it remained uncertain how far security policies would shift in a Japan under a DPJ government.
“The conservative faction advocates maintaining a close military alliance with the U.S. and continually striving to expand Japan’s security responsibilities,” he said in a backgrounder Wednesday.
“Another, potentially larger faction, led by former party chief Ichiro Ozawa, advocates a more independent role for Japan’s SDF [Self-Defense Forces]. This group would press for a less constrained use of Japanese military force, but only in support of U.N.-sanctioned missions,” said Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
What will ‘equal’ mean in practice?
Prof. Aurelia George Mulgan, a Japan specialist at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, said Friday it was not clear exactly what the DPJ’s platform call for a more “equal” alliance would mean in practice.
“It may mean that the DPJ is not necessarily committed to gestures of support to the United States simply for the sake of alliance solidarity, such as renewing the Maritime Self-Defence Forces’ refueling mission in the Indian Ocean beyond next January when the current law authorizing the mission expires,” she said.
“I also interpret greater equality in the relationship to mean a greater Japanese government say in matters relating to the American military presence in Japan.”
George Mulgan said this could potentially impact on the Status of Forces Agreement, the 1960 accord covering U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) presence in the country, especially on the southern island of Okinawa.
As part of a global Pentagon realignment of force deployment, the U.S. and Japan agreed in 2006 on measures aimed at making the USFJ more streamlined and more effective in future years.
They include moving some 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, the U.S. island territory some 1,400 miles to the east. There have also been plans to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station from a densely-populated area of Okinawa to a quieter part of the island.
George Mulgan said a DPJ government may review those earlier agreements.
And there was also a possibility that automatic support for Special Measures Agreements, which deal with host-nation financial support for the USFJ covering almost all non-military costs, could be withdrawn.
George Mulgan indicated that the makeup of the DPJ-led government would be a factor in the U.S.-Japan relationship too. If the DPJ ruled in coalition with the Social Democratic Party – the left-leaning former Socialist Party – that would “constrain its options in the foreign affairs and defense fields,” she said.