Variety, a new spice in Japan's political life

Sunday's elections gave the opposition a a rare voice it hasn't had for 50 years.

For most of the past half century, Japanese politics have come in one flavor only.

But on Sunday, voters scooped out a new political assortment that shrunk the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party's share of power and increased that of the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The results hardly reinvent the sundae. But never before have they presented such tangible alternatives - one that could be setting Japan on a path to a more vigorous multi-party democracy.

Since the end of World War II, opposition movements have come and gone without a serious challenge. This time, however, the DPJ benefited from an unprecedented rift between the interests of rural and urban Japanese.

The LDP, considered a conservative party which nonetheless spends lavishly on public-works projects in the countryside, lost many votes to the critics of such pork-barrel politicking at a time of deep economic uncertainty. The DPJ, in turn, picked up many voters who can be characterized by three "u's": urbane, unaffiliated, and unimpressed with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and his government.

Another "u" that came in handy is perhaps the "under 40." The DPJ, whose seats in the Diet's lower house grew from 95 to 127, is proving popular with younger voters who think Japan's entire political-economic machine needs an overhaul.

"It is clear that many people in urban areas who stayed away from politics in the past voted this time," says political analyst Minoru Morita. "They have realized that the LDP politicians ... transfer their taxes into rural areas, and such people now see themselves as exploited,"

The protest vote also went to a hodgepodge of other opposition groups from liberals to communists suggesting that the DPJ wasn't nearly as effective as it could have been as a rallying force for change.

"This is the first time that people in urban areas have resisted the LDP and the central government, and the DPJ just happened to get those angry people's votes," adds Mr. Morita. "If the DPJ can ride this trend, it can survive and finally bring the country into a two-party system."

That has long proved elusive. Blame the Japanese culture of consensus, the unseemliness of being too critical, or lately, according to revisionist historians, Washington's support for LDP since the end of World War II. The result is the same; Japan has remained, with a brief exception in 1993-94, a nation dominated by a single party.

But the opposition has succeeded in planting questions in voters' minds about how well the LDP is minding the store. With a sluggish economy and a shrinking population, young Japanese are worried about who will pay their benefits when they join the growing ranks of seniors.

The DPJ portrayed itself as the party of the new millennium. While Mr. Mori stumbled last week by asking "What's 'it'?" when for the first time he came across the acronym for information technology - the DJP was handing out multimedia CDs at campaign rallies, complete with techno music.

"The LDP keeps putting money into the old economy, like agriculture and construction, and they're spending away our future," says Hiroshi Kumagai, the DPJ's chief policymaker. "We have to say goodbye to the old regulations and the old style of politics, where the bureaucracy is so closely connected to big business."

These are not the first voices calling for such reform. But others have been unable to mobilize the LDP's critics.

"The Democratic Party is trying to show up as the enemy of bureaucracy," says Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo. "But to fight against the bureaucracy is a very dangerous thing in this country. Every party that has tried to do it so far has failed to succeed."

Still, Sunday's election is something of a watershed. Although Mori's LDP-led coalition retains a comfortable 271 out of 480 seats, it faces upper-house elections next year- and the fact that it is losing its footing as everyone's hometown party.

"The growing conflict of interests among the different sectors in this country slowly but surely signals the end of the era of the catch-all party," says Sasaki. "The Democrats didn't try to be a catch-all party, and that is something new for Japan."

Meanwhile, some analysts say the five opposition parties need to align more closely to offer a formidable challenge to the LDP.

"The opposition parties are not likely to cooperate too much, so I don't think it's the beginning of the end," says Roger Buckley, a political-science professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo. "I think the public just likes to remind the LDP that they're not immortal."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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