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Taro Aso, Japan's outgoing Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. (Toru Hanai/Toru Hanai/Reuters)
Taro Aso, Japan's outgoing Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. (Toru Hanai/Toru Hanai/Reuters)

In historic shift, Japanese vote for change Add to ...

Japanese voters awoke this morning to a change in government for only the second time in 54 years, after the Democratic Party of Japan claimed a landslide victory of at least 300 of 480 seats in a parliamentary election.

The conservative, pro-business Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the country for all but 11 months in 1955, has been rocked by political scandals, four prime ministers in as many years and Japan's worst post-war recession. Even last-minute pleas from outgoing Prime Minister Taro Aso failed to move a public disillusioned with their political system and angry with their leaders.

"The nation is very angry with the ruling party, and we are grateful for their deep support," the Democratic Party's leader, Yukio Hatoyama, said after the polls closed. "We will not be arrogant and we will listen to the people."

Mr. Aso conceded defeat late Sunday evening and suggested he would resign as party chief.

"These results are very severe," he said in a news conference at party headquarters. "There has been a deep dissatisfaction with our party."

Full results in the elections for Japan's lower house of parliament were not expected until early Monday morning in Japan, but throughout the election campaign there seemed little doubt as to the outcome. Moments after the polls closed at 8 p.m., Japanese broadcaster NHK announced its exit polls showed the opposition would win "more than 300 seats, way more than a majority in the lower house." Another broadcaster, TV Asahi, put their win at even higher, around 315 seats.

Expected to ascend to the prime ministership is Mr. Hatoyama, a Stanford University-trained engineer who has emphasized the need to reinforce social programs at home, and to reorient Japan's foreign policy away from dependence on the United States. The former Liberal Democrat helped found the Democratic Party in 1998, served as leader from 1999 to 2002 and resumed the top post in May after his predecessor stepped down amid a funding scandal.

He has a massive task before him. Japan's economy is mired in deep recession; its unemployment, at 5.7 per cent, is approaching record levels, and heavy debt and an aging population seem likely to keep its export-driven economy lagging even after the global economy recovers. His government will face a bureaucracy that is powerful, cumbersome and loyal to the outgoing Liberal Democratic Party and which has not hesitated to block previous attempts at reform. Most of his parliamentary bloc and much of his Cabinet will have little to no governing experience, and his electorate is bitter and disillusioned with the political process.

Though Mr. Hatoyama is a member of one of Japan's most famous political families - his father was former prime minister Ichiro Hatoyama and his brother is a former LDP cabinet minister - the man himself is seen as a mild-mannered intellectual who will take much direction from party co-founder Ichiro Ozawa, the former leader forced to step down amid a funding scandal in May.

"He's not an Obama figure. He's a mild-mannered, consensus-building, more intellectual than roll-up-your-sleeves and get down in the mud kind of person," said Ken Courtis, an analyst who is former vice-chair of Goldman Sachs Asia and now head of his own investment firm.

Nonetheless, Mr. Courtis said this is a historic turn for Japanese politics. "This is the first time Japan has really started to crack open the window to let in the fresh air. Now, do they find it too chilly and close it quickly? Or do they keep it open and get to work on reforms?"

The Democratic Party's campaign pledges have centred on improving social programs and income subsidies for farmers. But the party has not set out specific plans for the economy or reducing government debt, raising doubts among the public as to whether they'll be able to keep their promises.

Though most political observers agree voters made their choice out of disapproval for the current government, rather than because of the Democrats' policies, they warn how the party performs in the early days of their new government will be key to their longer-term survival.

"Because hopes for change are so big, the disappointment would be huge if the Democrats can't deliver results. The first three months will be crucial," Koichi Haji, chief economist with Tokyo's NLI Research Institute, told Reuters. "The problem is how much the Democrats can truly deliver in the first 100 days. If they can come up with a cabinet lineup swiftly, that will ease market concerns over their ability to govern."

For the ruling party, it was a crushing defeat; some observers have predicted the party is likely to splinter into a few smaller factions that will jostle for power in the Japanese Diet, or parliament's, lower house.

"I feel deeply the impact of this vote," former prime minister Shintaro Abe, a leading Liberal Democratic Party member, told television network TBS. "Our party must work to return to power."

A record number of Japan's 104 million registered voters were believed to have turned out for the vote, spurred on both by the promise of change and efforts by the Democrats to draw out as many voters as possible. By Friday, nearly 11 million people had already cast ballots in advance polls - 4.2 million more than voted early in the last lower-house election in 2005. Polls were also busy Sunday despite an approaching typhoon that threatened heavy rain and high wind on the east coast.

"We don't know if the Democrats can really make a difference, but we want to give them a chance," Junko Shinoda, 59, a government employee, told The Associated Press after voting in downtown Tokyo.

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