Japan's opposition swept to a historic victory in elections Sunday, crushing the ruling conservative party that has run the country for most of the postwar era and assuming the daunting task of pulling the economy out of its worst slump since World War II.
A grim-looking Prime Minister Taro Aso conceded defeat just a couple of hours after polls had closed, suggesting he would quit as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for all but 11 months since 1955.
“The results are very severe,” Aso said. “There has been a deep dissatisfaction with our party.”
Unemployment and deflation – and an aging, shrinking population – have left families fearful of what the future holds.
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Fed up with the LDP – traditionally the champion of big business and conservative interests in Japan – voters turned to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which ran a populist-leaning platform with plans for cash handouts to families with children and expanding the social safety net.
“This is a victory for the people,” said Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democrats and almost certainly Japan's next prime minister. “We want to build a new government that hears the voices of the nation.”
Japan's economy has been jolted amid the global recession and falling demand for its exports. The unemployment rate has spiked to a record 5.7 percent. Incomes are stagnant and families have cut spending.
The country also must deal with more people on elderly pensions as the taxpayer pool to pay for them shrinks.
The Democrats' plan to give families $275 a month per child through junior high is meant to ease parenting costs and encourage more women have babies. Japan's population of 127.6 million peaked in 2006, and is expected to fall below 100 million by the middle of this century.
Among other Democratic Party proposals: toll-free highways, free high schools, income support for farmers, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. The estimated bill comes to $179 billion if fully implemented. Critics say that will further bloat Japan's already massive debt.