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Little heat in election debate

August 13, 2009

JAPAN-ELECTION/It might have been a historic moment, but Japan’s first-ever election face-off between the leaders of its two biggest political parties left many cold.

There were no knock-out punches, little soaring rhetoric and the 90 minute debate between Prime Minister Taro Aso (pictured left) and opposition Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama (right) ended awkwardly when Hatoyama approached his rival for a final farewell, only to see Aso turn his back and leave the stage.

“He’s got too much on his mind,” said political commentator Hirotaka Futatsuki, suggesting Aso may not have meant to be rude.

Opinion polls suggest Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is headed for defeat in the Aug. 30 election, ending a half-century of almost unbroken rule by the conservative party.


Japanese party leaders have debated in parliament since the start¬†of a British-style “Question Time” several years back, but until now, election debates have included the heads of smaller parties too, blurring the direct confrontation between rivals for the premiership.

This one-on-one debate was not carried live on broadcast TV, although it could be viewed live on Internet sites and snippets were aired later on TV news programmes.

The 68-year-old outspoken Aso launched more aggressive attacks during the debate, held at a Tokyo hotel and sponsored by advocacy group Congressional Forum for a New Japan, while Hatoyama seemed to deflate after a robust start, observers generally agreed.

“Hatoyama was in defensive mode,” Futatsuki said. “He wanted to avoid mistakes, but he should have gone on the offensive more.”

Each made familiar charges against his rival — Aso accused the Democrats of being spendthrift and inconsistent on security matters, while Hatoyama blasted the LDP for decades of leaving policy-making to bureaucrats at the expense of voters’ interests.

But neither seemed to get into the rythym of a real debate, and they generally avoided eye contact even when posing questions.

“If you compare the debate to a baseball game, when it was just the sixth inning, you were already wondering if the ninth and final inning would ever come,” Futatsuki said.

Photo credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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