TOKYO (Reuters) – Two years after the Democratic Party swept to power pledging to reform how Japan is governed, the struggling ruling party appears to be reviving the very practices it reviled.
That poses a challenge for new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who -- if he lasts long enough to face a general election -- could have trouble convincing voters to back a party that no longer looks much different from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that it trounced decisively in 2009.
The Democrats, a mix of former LDP lawmakers, ex-socialists and younger conservatives, were never going to present radically different solutions. But many voters had hoped for a new style of government that was more open and less tied to the vested interests that backed the LDP during its decades in power.
"Noda is steering the wheel in the direction of going back to the old mold, pretty much being a mini-LDP in all aspects," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"People may say, 'If we want the LDP, why not let the real LDP back in government?'"
The convergence of the two parties' governing techniques and policies also casts doubt on whether Japan can address the ills of an aging society and an economy mired in stagnation.
"It's not as if the LDP system worked," Nakano said.
Noda is the third DPJ premier since voters handed the Democrats a landslide win in August 2009.
The Democrats had promised to pry policymaking control away from bureaucrats -- seen as too narrowly focused to design the bold policies needed -- and give consumers more money to boost growth instead of catering only to big corporations.
The DPJ had also pledged to unify decision-making inside the government to prevent feuding between cabinet ministers and the ruling party from slowing down and distorting policies.
Implementing those pledges, however, has proved tough given the Democrats' inexperience and internal feuding, bureaucrats' foot-dragging, and the huge scope of Japan's problems including public debt already twice size of the $5 trillion economy.
Some voters say it is time to bring back the LDP.
"Nothing will change if we leave the DPJ as the ruling party," said 32-year-old Tomoki Takeda in Tokyo.
Others, though, have little hope for either side. "It seems to me there was no sense in shifting to DPJ, because it proved to be too immature," said graphic designer Tadashi Samizo, 41.
"At the same time, LDP had its chance for a long time and ended up with all sorts of problems. So, I think we need someone outside of parties, maybe even outside of Japan."
Critics worry that Noda, a fiscal conservative who served as finance minister under predecessor Naoto Kan, is under the thumb of ministry officials keen to curb debt but with little appetite for redirecting spending based on policy priorities.
In a sign bureaucrats are calling the shots, the finance ministry on August 23 decided to ask all ministries to cut discretionary spending in the budget from April by 10 percent across the board to keep public finances from deteriorating.
"The bureaucrats have never really been ousted," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
On the policy front, the Democrats have had to drop or reconsider signature policies to give households more cash in order to win help in a divided parliament from the LDP and the No.2 opposition party.
They have also acknowledged the 5 percent sales tax would have to be raised to fund ballooning social welfare costs.
That is in line with LDP proposals, although both parties have substantial numbers of anti-tax naysayers.
Noda has also taken a step back from the campaign pledge to streamline policymaking. New DPJ policy chief Seiji Maehara -- who unlike his predecessor will not hold a cabinet post -- will now need to sign off on policies before cabinet approval.
"Noda's new proposal reflects what was once normal practice within the LDP," said an Asahi newspaper commentary.
Noda has also distanced himself from Kan's vision of a nuclear power-free world, floated after the March tsunami triggered a radiation crisis at a nuclear power plant.
Like many in the LDP, which long promoted nuclear power, he wants to regain trust in the industry but realizes dependence on nuclear energy must dwindle given public safety concerns.
On the diplomatic front, Noda like Kan has abandoned the Asia-centric rhetoric of the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and echoes the traditional LDP stance that the U.S.-Japan's alliance forms the core of Tokyo's security policies.
The Democrats' internal bickering also seems all too familiar to those who recall the LDP's faction-driven politics.
The DPJ leadership race was a battle between critics and allies of power broker Ichiro Ozawa, and Noda won a run-off against his Ozawa-backed rival after getting backing from other groups.
Encouraged by their lead in voter opinion polls, the LDP is betting it can return to power in the next general election, which must be held by autumn 2013.
"The DPJ administration has lost its raison d'etre. Its manifesto is bankrupt and many of the people think its economic policies were mistaken . fundamentally, the mandate of the people should be sought as soon as possible," LDP lawmaker Yoshimasa Hayashi told Reuters in an interview.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Konstantinovskaya; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Nick Macfie)