TOKYO — UNTIL early August, and perhaps beyond, Japan will likely be in political limbo as the nation sorts out the mixed results of Sunday's election.
While the immediate task is to choose a new prime minister, the deeper issue is whether the election marks the end of the 38-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
"This election does really put us in uncharted waters," says Kent Calder, a Japan expert at Princeton University.
Measured simply in number of seats, the LDP won by far in the election for 511 seats in the lower house. It garnered three times as many seats as the leading opposition party, the Socialists. And it won nearly the same percentage in seats - 43.6 percent - as Bill Clinton did in votes for United States president.
But the LDP lost its historic majority for a mere plurality, and now faces a collective threat from a new lineup of anti-LDP parties. The non-Communist opposition won 20 more seats than the LDP's 223.
No longer does the LDP command Japan as it has since 1955. The handwriting was on the wall for the LDP back in 1989 when it lost a majority in the less-powerful upper house.
"This is a small tremor, which will lead to a very big cumulative change in the Japanese political system," says Takashi Inoguchi, a Tokyo University political science professor.
For most voters, the choice came down to sticking with the stability of the LDP, despite its reputation for corruption, or voting for the vague promises of change offered by opposition parties.
Independent candidates won 30 seats, giving them some clout in the bargaining under way to build a coalition government.
And Japan's leftist parties, despite the near-demise of communist regimes elsewhere, were not dumped on the ash heap of history. The Communists retained their core 3 percent of seats, while the Socialists' seats were cut nearly in half to 70 from 134.
"The bottom line is that Japan has entered a period of political fluidity," says Dr. Inoguchi. "And it's going to take a certain amount of time to work itself out."
The LDP's big loss came not so much from the election as from the defection in June of 56 members who criticized the party's failure to enact electoral reform. The defection was coupled with the LDP's loss of a no-confidence vote that led to a call for new election of the lower house.
After the defection, the LDP had 227 of 511 seats. After the election, it has 223 seats - a loss of only four. The voting showed that non-LDP parties were able to diminish the LDP's power only slightly. "The LDP is not going to roll over and play dead," says Gerald Curtis, a Japan expert at Columbia University in New York City. "One should not exaggerate the implications of the success of the new opposition parties or a shift in Japanese priorities."
Rebuked but not shattered, the LDP tried to make the best of the results. Party secretary-general Seiroku Kajiyama claimed the party now plays a pivotal, rather than a leadership, role. "I believe people expect us to remain in power," Kajiyama said.
But the real pivot of power may lie with three new conservative parties, especially the 13-month-old, reformist Japan New Party, started by LDP defectors, which won 35 seats. Its decision to form a new government with either the LDP or the Socialists may make the difference.
Pundits have read big changes for Japan from the election. They see a weakening of the so-called "iron triangle," or the tight bonds between bureaucrats, politicians, and business that have favored producers over consumers. Or they see a weaker Japan in trade negotiations.
SUCH changes would come slowly, however, if at all. With the emergence of new conservative parties, big business has more options than just backing the LDP.
"With more options, the business world may find it difficult to unanimously support the LDP alone," says Masaru Hayami, president of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives.
Despite the fact that this election was perhaps Japan's most important since World War II, voter turnout was a record-low 67.3 percent, a sign of voter indifference toward "the system" set up by the LDP to turn Japan into an economic superpower. The drop-off in voter interest has been most dramatic in just the last three years since the last election.
A new prime minister must be chosen by Aug. 16, with the current leader, Kiichi Miyazawa, trying to hang on. All the parties are bargaining to form a coalition government, and the key issue is whether some sort of electoral reform can be passed quickly.
"Whatever government comes into power," says Dr. Curtis, "changing the election system will have to be at the top of its agenda."