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Upstart party has already changed Japan politics

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[August 26, 2009]  TOKYO (AP) -- A Japanese campaign commercial shows then-U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama cheered by supporters waving the famous "Change" placards. The scene fades to the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan calling for change in his country too.

HardwarePolls by Japan's major news outlets predict a landslide victory for the upstart Democrats in national elections Sunday. Even before the vote, their arrival has changed politics here, creating a legitimate contender for power in a country long dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party.

The change is evident in the heated election campaign, the likes of which Japan hasn't seen for over half a century.

It may mean more say for voters in government. Years of guaranteed victory for the ruling party, which has lost power only once since 1955, meant policy discussions often occurred among party factions, out of the public eye.

On policy, the Democrats would probably bring only modest change. Party promises include getting tougher in future negotiations with the U.S. and handouts to families and farmers.

Over time, the more important change may be the emergence of truly competitive politics in Japan.

"The DPJ's expected victory does not mean dramatic changes overnight, but it marks the beginning of a two-party system in Japanese politics," said Hiroshi Kawahara, professor of Japanese politics at Waseda University.

This has motivated more Japanese to vote.

In the high-profile Tokyo regional election held last month, government statistics show 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, up over 10 percent from the previous contest. Newspaper polls predict turnout for the upcoming national election will also rank among the highest in recent years.

The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, on the rare defensive as polls show their support is dwindling, have run advertisements that cast the Democrat's leader, Yukio Hatoyama, as a sly suitor attempting to woo a Japanese bride with grand, empty promises. They have attacked the Democrats as inexperienced and unrealistic.

It doesn't seem to matter -- a number of recent voter polls predict the Democrats, who claimed control of the weaker upper house in 2007, will easily claim a majority in parliament. Even an admission by Hatoyama that dead people were on his list of political donors had little effect. Many voters are not focused on any individual issue, but generally feel that new leadership is needed.

"It isn't anything the Democrats have done. The LDP is just scattered and unorganized," said Hideho Takahashi, 43, an office worker in Tokyo.

Voters will pick members for the powerful lower house of parliament. The party or coalition that wins a majority then chooses the prime minister, who picks political allies for Cabinet positions and key posts.

The Democratic Party was founded and is run by defectors from the Liberal Democrats, so both sides share broadly conservative stances on major issues. But if the opposition party claims victory and keeps its campaign promises, some of Japan's most established policies would be re-examined.

Among those is the country's relationship with Washington.

The party is unlikely to make any major changes, given that Japan hosts 50,000 U.S. troops and relies on the U.S. for nuclear deterrence. But the DPJ has long accused Japan's rulers of serving as yes-men to the U.S., especially in supporting its military actions, and repeatedly sworn to take a harder line in negotiations.

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"We want a relationship where we can make suggestions because we are an ally of the U.S., and not a relationship where we dispatch the Japan Self Defense Forces overseas having been told to do so by the U.S.," Hatoyama said earlier this month at a press conference in Tokyo.

Japan has a pacifist constitution that forbids offensive military operations, and its military is called the Self Defense Forces. The country sent 600 troops to Iraq in a noncombat role and has a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean that supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The Democrats vehemently opposed both and called for the ongoing refueling mission to end immediately, but did not mention the issue in campaign literature for the upcoming election. This caused an immediate outcry from their coalition partners, including the left-leaning Social Democrats, and the party now says it will not extend the current mandate when it runs out in January.

Another of the Democrats' promises could lead to an increase in the country's massive debt burden, which at 170 percent of GDP is the highest among industrialized economies.

The party has pledged not to raise the consumption tax for four years, despite a host of costly domestic programs including handouts for families with children and farmers, plus toll-free highways. The party says it will pay for these by eliminating waste and tapping hidden interest reserves in the current budget.

The current government has said increasing the tax is an unpopular but crucial step in returning to financial health, and most analysts agree.

"The spending plans proposed by the DPJ are necessary given the current economic conditions. But the spending program will lead to more debt, and the party has not fully explained to voters how it would tackle ballooning debt," said Waseda University's Kawahara.

To many voters, the policy details are not what is important. The Democrats are promising something different, and that is enough.

"It's been the same old politics for so long now under the LDP, they've just been running their mouths about change," said Kuniyo Koide, 71.

[Associated Press; By JAY ALABASTER]

Associated Press Writers Shino Yuasa and Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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