AFTER more than a year of political turmoil and declining fortunes, Japan's ruling conservatives are starting to smile again. After getting thrashed in parliamentary elections this summer, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a welcome victory on Sunday over a socialist opponent in a much-watched Upper House election.
The turn in political tides is reflected in many public opinion polls which show the LDP gaining support for the first time this year.
An editorial in Monday's Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, says: ``The favorable wind for the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) and the unfavorable one for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has changed very much.''
Analysts cite several reasons behind the shift. The Socialists have failed to follow up their summer election triumph with a display of strong leadership. Public anger at the LDP over an unpopular sales tax and political corruption scandals has faded. And the new administration of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu has carved out a fresh image.
The trend has encouraged confidence among LDP leaders that the party will retain a slim majority in upcoming elections for the Lower House of parliament. The elections must take place by next summer, but LDP sources say they have gained breathing room to hold off Socialist pressure for an early vote.
Still, the LDP faces the reality that its power is already significantly diminished. The opposition parties have an unprecedented majority in the Upper House, won last summer. And even if the LDP retains control of the government by holding onto the Lower House, there will likely be a more even balance of power. Moreover, the LDP should not be too complacent, observers warn.
The LDP's support is still far below that of its previous levels, analysts point out. And the public mood is highly changeable - any mistake could easily trigger deep underlying hostility to the current ruling party.
``The LDP should be cautious, act humble and not arrogant,'' suggests Shigezo Hayasaka, a insider close to the ruling party. ``If the LDP treats voters lightly, it may again be hit by an uppercut from the voters,'' he warns.
The LDP's downturn had clear causes. The Recruit Company corruption scandal, which became public in the summer of last year, revealed a pattern of payoffs and illegal political fund-raising in exchange for favors. The conservatives compounded the damage by using their majority to ram an unpopular 3 percent sales tax through parliament. The LDP also alienated its traditional rural voter base by promoting agricultural liberalization, including opening Japan's markets to foreign farm goods.
The LDP's image among Japanese voters was one of arrogant disregard for popular views.
The LDP government of Noboru Takeshita resigned when its support in the polls dipped to single-digit levels. In July, before the Upper House elections, the newly installed LDP Cabinet of Sosuke Uno commanded only 12.9 percent backing in the Yomiuri Shimbun's monthly survey.
The Socialists, led by the charismatic Takako Doi, were the main beneficiary of this anger. A third of Japan's voters named the JSP as the party they supported in the July survey, equaling the LDP's level. This was reflected in the upset victory in the Upper House election.
The most recent survey by the Yomiuri shows the change since then. The Kaifu Cabinet has a 40.9 percent support rate. The LDP got a 41.8 percent support in the poll, with the Socialists declining to 25.1 percent.
The vote on Sunday in Ibaraki prefecture, a conservative area north of Tokyo, also reflects the reversal of the LDP's decline, though it does not provide grounds for elation. The LDP candidate won by a 70,000-vote margin over a Socialist candidate, reversing the Socialist margin in the July election. But the LDP has historically garnered twice as many votes as the Socialists there.
The Socialists suffered from a sharp dip in voter turnout, indicating a lessened ability to mobilize independent voters who voted in such large numbers in the last election.
Prime Minister Kaifu's personal popularity was a negligible factor, says a senior LDP leader. Mr. Kaifu is dismissed in party circles as a political lightweight, under the control of the party bosses. ``He speaks well,'' the LDP power broker says disdainfully.
More important, the LDP leader says, is the evidence that voter anger over the sales tax and the Recruit scandal has calmed down significantly. The Socialist-led opposition calls for abolition of the tax, a position that won them support in July and which they intend to press in the form of a proposed bill. But recent polls show most voters favor revision, rather than abolition, of the tax, a stance which the LDP has tried to use as its own.
In a policy speech Tuesday to open the new parliament session, Prime Minister Kaifu pledged to ``move ahead forcefully with any necessary reforms'' of the tax. LDP insiders say they will introduce such measures by the end of the year. In the meantime, the LDP is hammering away at the Socialists and their partners for being unable to agree on a fiscal policy which can provide adequate revenues to substitute for the sales tax.
According to insider Hayasaka, the LDP leadership plans to wait until late January to dissolve the parliament and call new elections. While there is still a possibility the move could take place at the end of December, earlier dissolution now seems unlikely.