SUNDAY'S election in Japan for the lower house of the Diet, or parliament, presents that nation with an open door to developing a competitive multiparty system.
Less certain is whether it will walk through that door. We hope it does. But if the reformers fail to consolidate their gains and follow through on their promises, Japan's hot political summer will have led to little more than rearranging beach chairs.
Eliminating the Liberal Democratic Party's majority in parliament (it lost its majority in the upper house in 1989) is significant; it has enjoyed a lock on the more-powerful lower house for the last 38 years. But its big loss there came after last month's no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and the defection of nearly 50 members from the party. At the hands of voters, the LDP lost only four seats on Sunday, indicating its underlying strength and leaving it the leading player in a c oalition government.
The LDP's reformist spin-offs, the Japan Renewal Party, the Japan New Party, and Sakigake, drew many of their votes from the Socialist Party, which lost 66 seats. Until now it had been the home of the protest vote.
Nor did the theme of reform capture voters' imaginations. The estimated 67 percent turnout, enviable in United States, was low by Japanese standards. Turnout was generally higher in rural LDP strongholds than in urban areas, including Tokyo. Some voters complained that the campaign failed to discuss issues that really interested them - tax reform and Japan's role in the world. Ironically, these represent two policy areas in which the reformists differ with the LDP. Other voters were skeptical that the re form-minded parties really represent change.
Overcoming that skepticism is a significant challenge. It will be fueled if the ensuing round of coalition-building focuses exclusively on back-room deals for picking ministers without a parallel focus on policy ideas.
Many analysts anticipate an unstable coalition and another round of elections within a year. In the short run, will the "reformists" turn to the same corporations for contributions that led the LDP into trouble? Will the reformists be able to show enough progress on their key issue to build support for future elections? Over the longer term, can they lay out a vision for Japan that will "bring along" Japanese voters, who traditionally support stability rather than change? The answers to these questions w ill help signal Japan's direction.