Historic Victory, Ticklish Transition

The "watershed election" of August 30 lived up to its billing, as the Democratic Party of Japan—aided by electoral reforms implemented 15 years earlier—swept the Liberal Democrats from power in an unprecedented reversal. Unprecedented also are the challenges facing the relatively young and inexperienced party as it navigates a perilous transition and attempts to bring the bureaucracy to heel.

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With "regime change" fever sweeping Japan in the weeks leading up to August 30, the outcome of the 45th general election was decisive. The Democratic Party of Japan secured 308 out of 480 seats in the powerful House of Representatives, leaving the once-invulnerable Liberal Democratic Party with only 119. The results represented a complete reversal of fortune from the outcome four years earlier, when the LDP secured 296 seats and the DPJ a mere 113.

It was a vivid reminder, to politicians and ordinary citizens alike, of the voters' power to change the political landscape overnight under the current system of single-seat constituencies. 1 The LDP was ousted from the number one position in the lower house for the first time since the party's formation in 1955, as its strength in that chamber dropped to an unheard-of level—104 seats fewer than its previous low, following the 1993 election. Meanwhile, the DPJ, founded just 13 years ago in 1996, scored a decisive victory in the fifth general election it has ever contested, seizing power with a rock-solid majority. Never before since the end of World War II has a Japanese party made the transition from opposition to ruling party single-handedly. Never before have the Japanese people in effect chosen a new prime minister at the ballot box. 2 For Japan, the general election of August 2009 fully lived up to its billing as a historic watershed.

Turning Out to Make History

The urban districts in particular witnessed a veritable "windstorm," as one LDP official put it. In the last general election, the DPJ had won only 1 and lost 24 of the single-seat constituencies in Metropolitan Tokyo; this time, it took 21 districts and lost only 4. In nearby Kanagawa Prefecture, where the DPJ had previously lost all 18 districts, it won 14 and lost only 4.

Voter turnout, at 69.28% (a total of 70.58 million ballots cast in the single-seat district races) was the highest since the advent of single-seat districts. In 2005, Prime Minister Jun'chiro Koizumi galvanized voters by calling a snap election to stage a showdown on his postal privatization plan. In 2009, the prospect of a historic change of government galvanized them even more.

In the single-seat constituencies, the DPJ captured 33.47 million votes nationwide, or 47% of the total, while the LDP received 27.30 million, or 38%. These ratios are almost a mirror image of the 2005 election results, when the LDP won 47% of the vote and the DPJ 36%. The DPJ also neatly turned the tables in the number of seats picked up from local districts, jumping from 52 in the 2005 election to 221 this time around, while the LDP dropped from 219 to 64.

In the proportional-representation races as well, the DPJ captured 29.84 million votes, or 42% of the total, for 87 seats, while the LDP won 18.81million, or 26%, for 55 seats. Compare these results with 2005, when the LDP won 77 seats and the DPJ only 61. The breakdown of the proportional-representation vote closely mirrored the results of the latest opinion polls. Election-day reports predicting at least a 300-seat DPJ win on the basis of exit polls proved equally reliable.

In many ways the numbers drive home the uncertainties of politics under the "winner take all" single-seat-district system. The DPJ won overwhelmingly, gaining 189 more seats from the local districts than the LDP, even though the vote margin separating the two parties (slightly more than 6 million votes) amounted to less than 10% of all the votes cast in those races—a margin comparable to that of the previous election. This means that another shift in the political climate between now and the next election could turn the tables once again.

The Diet's Changing Face

Never has a general election wrought so dramatic a shift in the makeup of the lower house, and the change goes beyond party affiliation. When the lower house next convenes, a full 33% of its seats will be filled by first-term politicians, the highest percentage voted in since 1949. Within the DPJ alone, 46% of the newly elected lower house members are first-termers, making them the single largest bloc in the party. The contrast with the LDP, with only 5 first-termers, could not be more striking.

Women won 54 seats in the election, the largest number ever. Of those winners, 40 (more than 70%) were DPJ candidates, many of them drafted as "LDP assassins" by DPJ party heavyweight and chief election strategist Ichirô Ozawa. Thus far, Japanese women have played a meager role in national politics compared with their counterparts in most Western countries, but the percentage of female politicians in the House of Representatives could rise dramatically if other parties follow the DPJ's lead in the next general election.

The DPJ's victory has also given the House of Representatives a younger look. The average age of DPJ members is 49.4 years, the lowest of any major party. An overwhelming majority of the party's lower house members (75%) will first-, second-, or third-term politians. But the youthfulness that helped power the DPJ's election victory could prove a drawback when it comes to running the country. While the LDP still has over 70 veterans who have served at least four full terms in the lower house, the new ruling party has only 51. Although merit and competence cannot be gauged by longevity alone, experience and know-how will be a must for the DPJ in the Diet it attempts to pursue its legislative agenda in the face of a seasoned opposition led by the LDP. The DPJ's relative youth and inexperience also raise questions about its ability to wrest power from the bureaucracy and put the people's elected representatives back in charge of government as promised. The DPJ has announced its intention to station 100 politicians throughout the administrative apparatus, but one wonders whether the party has 100 members with the savvy to see through bureaucratic smoke and mirrors and keep the civil servants in line. That the DPJ has relatively few of the zoku giin (politicians with ties to specific government agencies and vested interests) who long dominated the LDP also means that it has relatively few legislators with a high level of expertise in each administrative area. Finding the resources to assert control over confident, knowledgeable bureaucrats in every corner of the government could prove an impossible task.

Transition—Navigating Uncharted Waters

Under the circumstances, it is particularly important that the incoming prime minister choose the right people for his cabinet. DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama has spoken of tapping "not just specialists in a particular area but people who can take the long view in discussing government policy in Japan." Here too, however, the party's resources are limited. Until 2004, party leadership alternated between Kan Naoto (now acting president) and Hatoyama. Katsuya Okada took the helm in 2004, followed by Seiji Maehara in 2005. Maehara was quickly succeeded by Ichirô Ozawa, whose Liberal Party had merged with the DPJ in 2003. Then, in May this year, Hatoyama returned to the top spot once more. All in all, the DPJ has a core of less than 10 heavy hitters who can speak for the party.

This may explain why, one day before voters went to the polls, Hatoyama announced a plan to set up a "transition team" the day after the election by immediately deciding on a few key party and cabinet posts. Doubtless Hatoyama and Secretary-General Okada wanted to map out the best way to deploy the party's political heavyweights and ensure the timely and smooth appointment of vice-ministers, parliamentary secretaries, and other officials. But politicians are extremely sensitive to appointment matters. The conventional wisdom under the LDP was that a prime minister made more enemies and weakened his government each time he reshuffled the cabinet. In the event, the DPJ leadership quickly abandoned the plan, concerned that such a transition team could cause confusion and division in the party by giving rise to talk of conflicting transition plans in the two weeks prior to the cabinet's official launch. Most observers believe the force behind that decision was Ozawa, chief architect of the DPJ's landslide victory.

Another reason Hatoyama had to abandon the idea of forming a bare-bones cabinet at the outset was the necessity of building a coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the People's New Party. Despite its impressive win, the DPJ lacks a majority in the House of Councillors, and in the House of Representatives it lacks the two-thirds majority (320 seats) needed to override the upper house in legislative matters. Without the cooperation of the SDP and the PNP, the DPJ would be unable to control the House of Councillors, and its agenda could fall prey to parliamentary gridlock. SDP President Mizuho Fukushima and newly selected PNP leader Shizuka Kamei have both made it clear that they are willing to enter into coalition talks on the understanding that they will play some role in the new cabinet. Such crucial negotiations could easily founder if the important cabinet posts were all decided in advance.

With these considerations in mind, Hatoyama quickly backtracked after the election. "Personnel decisions have to be made all at the same time," he said on August 31. "I will make those decisions as soon as I am selected prime minister." He added that he would exercise his authority as party president and decide by himself, relying on no one else's judgment. Top party officials have echoed his assertion, foreswearing any attempt to influence Hatoyama's appointments.

Still, choosing a cabinet is quite different from appointing officers to lead an opposition party. One false step at the outset can throw the entire process into disarray. Hatoyama will need resolve and strong leadership to make his own judgments amid the clamor of party factions and coalition members demanding their piece of the action. Back in 2001, Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi electrified the public by choosing mavericks and relative outsiders for his first cabinet—including Makiko Tanaka as foreign minister—in bold defiance of the party bosses. Does the subdued, mild-mannered Hatoyama have it in him to do the same? The formation of a cabinet will be an early test of Hatoyama's mettle, and the outcome could tell us much about whether he has what it takes to lead the nation.


1. Until 1997, all members of the House of Representatives were elected from local multi-seat constituencies known as "medium-sized districts," typically having three to five seats. Since 1997, elections for the House of Representatives (or general elections) have been held under a parallel voting system, with 300 of the 480 seats filled from local single-seat districts, and the remaining 180 filled from large multiseat bloc districts using a method called proportional representation. In a general election each voter casts two ballots, one selecting a candidate in the local single-seat district race and another selecting a party in the regional proportional-representation race. Candidates are permitted to run in both races.

2. The prime minister is appointed by Diet resolution from among the ranks of Diet members. In practice, this means that the post goes to the leader of the party that controls the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives, or, in the case of a coalition, to the leader of one of the parties making up the coalition.

Hiroshi Izumi

  • Political Journalist