by Vu Thu Ha
Perhaps the only surprise of Japan s general election on Sunday was the strength of the vote for the Democratic Party of Japan.
An electorate desperate for change provided it with an extraordinary victory 308 of the 408 seats in the House of Representatives much more convincing than all the pre-election analysis forecasts.
It was the first time an opposition party has won a single-party majority in the lower house, the most powerful chamber of Japan s parliament, since World War II and has driven the Liberal Democratic Party, which had governed almost uninterrupted for more than 50 years, into the political wilderness.
But winning the election is just a start of a long journey the DJP will have to make to ensure its dominance of Japan s politics.
It will begin with confirmation of DPJ president and prime minister-designate Yukio Hatoyama on September 16 and the formation of a tripartite coalition government with the Social Democratic Party and the People s New Party.
The task that will define the success or failure of the DJP-led government is the way it goes about the revival of the world s second economy.
The DJP s election manifesto says the thrust of its policy will be to make the economy domestic-consumer driven with less dependence on the dwindling demand for the country s exports.
The task will have to be accomplished with a declining and ageing population against ever-intensifying international competition.
The DPJ s manifesto strategies for economic growth include increased child benefits; a higher minimum wage and less tax for small-to-medium enterprises which are often more domestic-consumer focused.
The purpose of the changes is to persuade the thrifty Japanese to take their money from their pockets and spend it.
The Democrats plan to fund their largesse through the elimination of waste and redirecting spending.
One goal is to trim 1.3 trillion yen (US$14 billion) from the public works programme over four years although this might dampen domestic demand.
The DPJ s pledge not to raise the consumption tax for four years is likely to accelerate the recession-driven fall in tax revenue and threaten finance vital to the more generous social security system that it has promised.
Management of the budget is also likely to prove crucial to the new government.
The Finance Ministry received funding requests from ministries and government agencies just the day after the election.
The DPJ, anxious to reshape the budget to include all of its programmes, is likely to disregard the requests that would increase spending by almost 3.5 trillion yen compared with the 2009 and take the general account budget to more than 90 trillion yen for the first time.
This is especially true when it s remembered that the DPJ has vowed to reduce public works spending.
The issue seems sure to trigger the first skirmish between the new government and the ministerial bureaucrats.
It will also test the DJP s determination to shift the balance of power from the bureaucrats to the people s elected representatives.
The mandate s overwhelming victory gives the DJP more of a chance to win the battle.
The DJP government is expected to make only modest changes in Japan s foreign policy.
Yukio Hatoyama says he will put more emphasis on forging of closer ties with his Asian neighbours than his predecessors as part of building an East Asian community.
And like some of his defeated foes, he has promised not to visit Tokyo s Yasukuni Shrine so as not to offend China and South Korea.
But for now the major focus will be the alliance with the United States.
The prime minister-designate pledged to create a more equal partnership with Washington a partnership that would allow Japan to have greater flexibility in foreign policy during the election campaign.
The DPJ says it wants to re-assess some of the agreements governing US military forces in Japan and plans to end Japan s naval support for the US-led occupation of Afghanistan when the mandate expires in January.
But the new government, mindful of Japan s reliance on the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, will not want to put the alliance at risk.
Hatoyama has reportedly assured President Barack Obama by telephone that Tokyo s relationship with Washington will remain central to Japanese diplomacy.
Washington s newly-arrived ambassador to Tokyo John V Roos became the first diplomat to have post-election talks with the prime minister-designate yesterday.
The embassy s website says Hatoyama showed his Stanford University football helmet to the ambassador who also attended the California university.
Later, the diplomat told reporters that it was a "very warm meeting" and he was "very excited about working with this new government".
The new government s determination not to be distracted by foreign policy is understandable.
It faces an upper house election next summer and if it has not proved to the voters they made the best decision before then, it could find itself confronted by a resurgent LDP and political deadlock. After all that is what happened in 2007 when the DJP and allies won control of the upper house and with it, the ability to thwart government policy. VNS