Japan's Voters Reject Big Change After Three Years of Reform Talk

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Japan's voters gave the once-powerful Liberal Democratic Party a half-hearted endorsement in yesterday's elections and signaled they were not ready for radical change.

The results were a mixed victory for the conservative LDP, a party trying to redeem itself since 1993 when it lost its 38-year grip on power amid defections and scandals.

Voter turnout, at just under 60 percent, was the lowest in postwar Japanese history. And in a part of the balloting where voters were asked to choose a party and not an individual, opposition parties collectively did better than the LDP.

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"The voters' reaction to the LDP was not strong support, but one of choosing a lesser evil," says Yasunori Sone, a political scientist at Keio University in Tokyo.

Results available at press time showed the party winning roughly 240 of the 500 seats in the Diet - falling short of a simple majority.

Nonetheless, LDP leader Ryutaro Hashimoto is very likely to continue as prime minister once he arranges backing from some smaller parties.

At the same time, the results showed that drastic reform is not a winning proposition in Japan. The main opposition New Frontier Party (NFP), which told the voters it would revamp this country's government and offered them huge tax cuts, barely managed to maintain its strength in the lower house, where it will control about 155 seats.

"It's very disappointing," says newly reelected NFP parliamentarian Isamu Ueda. "We have to admit that our message was not received well enough."

Japan's Socialists, who provided a loyal opposition to the LDP for most of the postwar era, all but faded from the lower house, winning just a dozen seats. The voters abandoned them because the party reversed many of its long-held pacifist positions in order to participate in a ruling coalition with the LDP since 1994.

The newly formed Democratic Party, which has espoused some rather vague reformist policies, should win about 50 seats. Analysts once saw the party as a potential kingmaker, but the LDP now seems powerful enough to put together a government without the Democrats.

This contest was the first use of a new electoral system for the 500-seat lower house. In contrast to the old system, where large districts elected a group of representatives, 300 smaller constituencies are each sending a single politician to the lower house. The other 200 seats are being filled through a proportional representation system in which voters endorse a party, not an single candidate. In this part of the balloting, the voters continued to register frustration with the LDP by strongly supporting opposition parties. The LDP won roughly 70 of these positions.

It was in the single-seat districts that the LDP prevailed most clearly. At the local level, where it has practiced a brand of politics based on loyalty and personal relationships, the party's high level of organization was a key factor, says political commentator Yasushi Haga.

Japan's politicians will now go into a period of intensive consultations to determine the shape of the next Cabinet. Then the new lower house will elect the prime minister.

In all likelihood, the next government will emphasize a commitment to administrative reform, a policy that just about every party endorsed during the runup to the elections.

Japan's bureaucrats have come under much criticism in recent years, and changing the administrative system is now seen as a national priority. "Whether the LDP likes it or not," says Mr. Haga, "the current situation will force them to realize administrative reform."

Nonetheless, the LDP is seen as the party with the most gradual approach on the issue, since the party has long enjoyed close, mutually beneficial arrangements with the bureaucrats.

A major appeal of the LDP - among an apathetic electorate facing a new, sometimes confusing electoral system - was its familiarity, says Professor Sone. It seems clear that yesterday's result is not an unambiguous endorsement of LDP rule nor does it suggest an imminent return to the era of LDP dominance. That era was defined by the cold war and, for much of the time, a booming Japanese economy, which allowed the party to practice an extreme form of pork-barrel politics.

Now the party can no longer style itself as a defender against communism and the government is too poor to distribute development projects intended to win votes.

Speaking before the election, political analyst Minoru Morita predicted that the LDP would prevail in the election. "But the LDP's revival is only temporary," he warned. "The traditional, LDP type of influence-peddling ... is now about to be behind us."

This vacuum will provide an opportunity for opposition parties like the NFP and the Democratic Party, which in this election eroded each other's support. To appeal to Japan's increasingly apathetic voters, says John Neuffer of Tokyo's Mitsui Marine Research Institute, they must put together a more credible alternative to the LDP. "They've learned they cannot come up with these reckless preelection promises and be believed," he says.

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