Japan's Election: Opposition Wins Historic Victory

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Itsuo Inouye / AP

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, at the party's election center in Tokyo on Aug. 30

It took less than two hours to confirm a change that has been brewing for half a century. The polls for Japan's general election closed at 8 p.m. nationwide, and by 9:40 p.m. Yukio Hatoyama — head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and soon to be the nation's new Prime Minister — reacted to his party's landslide victory with characteristic reserve and calm. "It is important that we not be too proud and try hard to make this victory a victory for the public."

Elsewhere, victorious DPJ candidates lifted their arms and hoarsely shouted the celebratory phrase "banzai" after exit polls showed Japan's main opposition party blasted the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from its virtually untested 54-year reign. Polls indicate the DPJ's historic win will likely hand the party more than 300 of the 480 seats in the Diet's lower house, while the LDP is expected to get about 100 — just one-third of what it had before Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved parliament in July and called the Aug. 30 election. If the DPJ lands more than 321 seats, it will have the two-thirds majority it needs to unilaterally pass bills rejected by the upper house.

A defeated Aso appeared before television media and assumed responsibility for his party's crushing blow. Expressing his grief over the results, Aso said that he would step down as president of the LDP, requesting that an election be held as soon as possible for new party leadership. Media reports say that he has relinquished his post. "We could not wipe away the resentment that the LDP accumulated over the years," he said. "I feel we were destined [to be defeated]." Many well-known incumbents lost their own local elections, such as Fukuoka prefecture's Taku Yamasaki (a former minister once considered a possible successor to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi) and former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. Those LDP candidates who were elected include Koizumi's son and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Japanese people voted for the DPJ, with its slogans of "Regime Change" and "Livelihood First," amidst the worst economic crisis in Japan's postwar history. An unprecedented 14 million votes were cast in advance of Sunday's election, accounting for about 13% of all eligible voters. And voter turnout is expected to reach 70% — the highest in nearly 20 years. As exit polls came out around the nation, television media tended to focus on which LDP candidates lost — marking LDP incumbents with red batsu or Xs — rather than focus on the DPJ winners, reflecting a widely held belief that Sunday's landslide win is less a vote of confidence in the DPJ's ability to effect change than a show of frustration over the LDP's failed leadership.

Hatoyama's party, nevertheless, appears ready to meet the big challenges his new administration will face. With an economy in crisis, record unemployment and faltering welfare systems, the DPJ is already looking for all the help it can get. The party is expected to meet on Monday with the leftist Social Democratic Party and the conservative People's New Party to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition. As Hatoyama said Sunday night, "We have been fighting, thinking we have to change politics, and now we are about to realize it." The Japanese people have set the ball rolling. Now it's up to the DPJ to take the lead.