TOKYO, July 23, 2009 (AFP) - Japan's opposition is promising a kinder, gentler nation if it wrests power in a general election next month. But it is under pressure to flesh out its intentions in both economic and foreign policy.
Opinion polls give the Democratic Party of Japan a strong edge over the ruling coalition, and DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama is calling the August 30 election "an important, revolutionary vote."
Hatoyama's party, for so long the poor relation in Japanese politics, hopes to defeat Prime Minister Taro Aso and end more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
In government, Hatoyama says, the DPJ would practise a "politics of love" by expanding family allowances, pensions and free schooling.
But with the world's second-biggest economy mired in a deep recession, Hitotsubashi University politics professor Tetsuro Kato said: "The DPJ needs to better explain the financing of their policies."
Although at least a third of voters say they are yet to make up their minds, most pundits agree that victory is nigh for the DPJ, a broad tent of a party that includes LDP defectors along with socialists, pacifists and defence hawks.
The deeply unpopular LDP -- presenting itself as the safe choice against the untested DPJ -- rolled out a cartoon this week portraying Hatoyama as a suitor making unrealistic promises to a dinner date.
"Why don't you switch to me?" the Hatoyama lookalike asks a woman, promising lower taxes and more state aid. When she asks how he will foot the bill, he replies: "I'll think about the details after we get married."
Targeting the business-friendly LDP, the DPJ has campaigned under the broad slogan of "People's Lives First" and the motto of "protecting jobs, livelihoods and local communities."
While the LDP has proposed raising Japan's national sales tax from its current rate of five percent once the economy recovers, Hatoyama has said he would not even discuss a tax hike in the next four years.
Hatoyama has pledged to roll back Japan's massive state bureaucracy, whose senior officials have often wielded more power than elected politicians, and to restore a "politicians-led politics."
But some commentators also question the realism of this goal, noting the dangers of being in government without a cooperative civil service.
"The DPJ may be able to implement reforms of the rusty bureaucracy," said Toyo University politics professor Shujiro Kato. "But it has to do it wisely if it wants to earn the loyalty of the bureaucrats."
In a country defined since World War II by its pacifist constitution and its alliance with the United States, the DPJ has also been vague about its foreign and defence policies.
The DPJ has been far less enthusiastic than the LDP about foreign forays such as anti-piracy operations off Somalia or interceptions of North Korean ships, as permitted under recent UN sanctions.
The opposition party has suggested that Japan's relations with the United States should be more "equitable", and former party chief Ichiro Ozawa once called for US military bases in Japan to be scaled down.
But there have been signs the party is moderating its stance, recently backing off a plan to halt a Japanese naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the US-led mission in Afghanistan.
Mikitaka Masuyama, politics professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said that despite its past rhetoric, "the DPJ will discover the reality that they can't change diplomacy very much once they take office."