TOKYO — MOST of Japan's registered voters stayed away from the polls on Sunday. Perhaps they were too disgusted with politics to vote, or perhaps they had something more important to do, such as go on vacation.
But those who participated in nationwide balloting to choose half of the upper house of Japan's parliament had something to say, and their message has surprised this country's politicians.
One remarkable element was the depth of lingering antipathy for the Liberal Democratic Party, the group that held exclusive power in Japan for almost four decades until 1993 and whose members now dominate the governing coalition.
For the first time in postwar history, the LDP did not win the proportional representation part of the balloting, a popularity contest in which voters pick a party rather than a candidate.
Instead a seven-month-old opposition group, the New Frontier Party (NFP), took first place in the proportional contest and did very well in the election overall. The NFP came into the race defending 19 of its present 252 seats in the upper house and on Sunday it won 40.
''These are wonderful results because they show the NFP is being recognized by voters as capable of taking over the government in the future,'' exulted party strategist Kozo Watanabe.
The LDP defended 33 seats and won 49, but many analysts had expected the party to do better. ''It was a very difficult election,'' sighed the leader of the LDP, Yohei Kono.
The success of the NFP, whose leaders have sought to create a balanced, two-party system here, has caused some backtracking among pundits who predicted its failure.
But in the words of Minoru Morita, an even-handed and respected political analyst. ''The best medicine for any political party is to win an election. These good results will bring the party alive and strengthen its solidarity and cohesion.''
Of course, parts of the voters' message came as no surprise: They are not at all pleased with the ruling coalition. Those who have traditionally supported Japan's Socialists, led by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, are particularly disenchanted. ''The election outcome was very bad for the coalition government,'' says Kuniko Inoguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University.
Not premier for long
Mr. Murayama says he will stay on as prime minister, but his days in that job are numbered. ''I'd say the coalition will last until September with Mr. Murayama in charge,'' adds Ms. Inoguchi. Other analysts give Murayama slightly longer, perhaps until early next year.
In September the LDP will have to decide whether to keep Mr. Kono as party leader or get behind someone else.
Kono's chief rival is Minister for International Trade and Industry Ryutaro Hashimoto, known in the United States for his recent face-off against US trade representative Mickey Kantor. But Kono's loss is not necessarily Mr. Hashimoto's gain.
Ironically, a weakened LDP is even more dependent on its Socialist coalition partners, since it lacks sufficient strength in the powerful lower house of parliament to rule without non-LDP support.
Even though Socialist popularity is dwindling, the party still provide the necessary votes to fill out a ruling coalition in the lower house. Most observers say that the LDP must head any post-Murayama coalition, and the Socialists are more likely to support a dovish Kono than a hawkish Hashimoto.
Meanwhile, the newly emboldened NFP will be making life difficult for the coalition. NFP members have their ambitions set on an imminent election in the country's lower house of parliament, which selects the prime minister.
''We will be demanding [a dissolution of the lower house and elections] as soon as possible,'' promises Isamu Ueda, an NFP lower house member.
NFP leaders insist that voters backed their party because their policy statements have been clearer and more innovative, and because many Japanese are so unimpressed with the ruling coalition.
But another factor is that the NFP embraces a party backed by a large and well-funded lay Buddhist organization known as the Soka Gakkai, the sort of structured support that counts for double in times of low voter turnout.
''Of course that was a very important factor in this election,'' says Mr. Ueda, but he notes that the NFP won double the number of votes ever accumulated by the Komeito, the party supported by the Soka Gakkai.