TOKYO — Sunday's election results in Japan may seem like a clear mandate for change. Looks can be misleading.
Japan's voters resoundingly kicked out the party that has governed their country for virtually all the past half century. The newly empowered Democratic Party of Japan's time to celebrate, though, could be short-lived.
They've made their promises, and now they have to deliver -- a tall order for a party with a shaky mandate. The numbers may show landslide, but most voters were seen as venting dissatisfaction with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party more than endorsing the policies of the opposition.
The beneficiary of the public's frustration is the Democratic Party, which has laid out a populist platform with promises to expand the country's social safety net. The media projected late Sunday night that the party would capture 300 of 480 lower house seats -- more than enough to control the national agenda.
Many Democratic candidates, who have never experienced such sweet victory, seemed stunned by the results, overcome with emotion by the historic nature of their win.
The Democrats' rise comes at a critical crossroads for the world's second-largest economy.
Japan managed to climb out of a yearlong recession in the second quarter, but its economy remains weak. In the long-term it faces a bleak outlook if it isn't able to figure out how to cope with a rapidly aging and shrinking population.
The Democrats' solution is to move Japan away from a corporate-centric economic model to one that focuses on helping people. They have proposed an expensive array of initiatives: cash handouts to families and farmers, toll-free highways, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. The estimated bill comes to $179 billion when fully implemented starting in the 2013 fiscal year.
The party has said it plans to cut "waste" and rely on untapped financial reserves to fund its programs. But with Japan's public debt heading toward 200 percent of gross domestic product, the Democrats' plan has been criticized as a financial fantasy.
But the Democrats' most formidable roadblock will probably be Japan's massive bureaucracy, which effectively runs the government. The new ruling party has vowed to do what no one has managed to so far: limit the bureaucracy's power and hand more control over to elected officials.