Jaded Urban Japanese Reject Status Quo In Local Elections

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

YESTERDAY a pair of political outsiders, both former comedians, formally took charge of the governments of Japan's two most-important cities.

The April 9 election of Yukio Aoshima as governor of Tokyo and ''Knock'' Yokoyama in Osaka struck many analysts here as stunning evidence of voter disaffection with Japan's established political parties. But a second round of local voting this past weekend, along with closer scrutiny of the April 9 vote, suggests that Japan's political evolution is more frozen than freewheeling.

Ever since 1993, when the dominant political institution of postwar Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party, lost its parliamentary majority, people here have been waiting to see what will emerge to replace it. A host of political parties have been in a long period of ''realignment,'' but the country is now essentially being run by the somewhat-chastened LDP, under the cover of Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

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Not surprisingly, this arrangement has bred a certain amount of cynicism. In the Tokyo governor's race, for instance, the LDP and the Socialists endorsed a former bureaucrat, whom most pundits expected would take the seat. But the conventional wisdom egregiously miscalculated the level of popular dissatisfaction with this status-quo candidate.

Most analysts later explained that urban Japanese, beset by economic frustrations and unprecedented worries about their safety arising from recent terrorists attacks, are increasingly frustrated with the bland morass of current national politics.

Tokyo and Osaka voters, however, do not the nation make. ''The urban voter,'' says John Neuffer, a political analyst at Mitsui Marine Research Institute in Tokyo, a corporate-funded think tank, ''is a little more ahead of the ball, a little more sophisticated, a little more alienated from the politicians than the voters in the rural districts.''

In the majority of this month's races for mayoralties, governorships, and local and regional legislative assemblies, the winning candidates were affiliated -- overtly or covertly -- with established parties. (In many cases they identified themselves as ''independents,'' but they run with the endorsements of political parties.) The result of this mixed bag has been the slow down in political maneuvering at the national level.

Minoru Morita, a respected independent political analyst in Tokyo, says he is surprised by the calm response of the nation's political chieftains in the wake of the Tokyo and Osaka races. The Socialists ''have no sense of crisis,'' about their political prospects, he says, and notes that previous upsets in significant local races have forced the resignations of senior LDP leaders.

The party leaders ''may be right,'' suggests Mr. Neuffer. Although the Tokyo and Osaka results have been troubling to political mandarins, the overall trends have proved more comforting. More than anything else, he says, the local elections have made all the politicians feel ''a little weaker again.''

''These elections have stabilized politics,'' he adds. ''They have injected enough upset and uncertainty into the process to make all the politicians want to consolidate their position.''

The country's opposition coalition, a group of parties led by LDP defectors, did not record any stunning gains in the races. They have only been organized since late last year, so it may be too soon to call their lack of significant success a failure. The country must hold elections for the upper house of Japan's parliament by this July, when voters will have their first major chance to weigh in on the realignment.

There was some talk in Tokyo of forcing elections for Japan's powerful lower house at the same time, but proponents of this strategy have quieted down. Prime Minister Murayama does not have to call lower house elections until the summer of 1997.

But Murayama may not last that long, analysts say. His Social Democratic Party of Japan has consistently lost popular standing since it reached an accommodation with the LDP -- its opponent during much of the postwar era -- and seems less and less like a real partner in the ruling coalition.

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