NO matter who wins Sunday's national election, Japan may be headed for months of political tremors. A shaky leadership for an economic superpower is just what many Japanese wish to avoid, especially since a trade confrontation with the United States is likely to escalate by midyear.
``The election is not as important as the politics after it,'' says Rei Shiratori, dean of the political science department at Tokai University.
For almost a year, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been wrenched by scandals, the removal of two prime ministers, a loss of supremacy in the upper house, a populace enraged over a new tax, and the problem of a weak, stop-gap prime minister.
``Political stability in Japan is needed more than before,'' says LDP Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa. ``But it is an irony of history that the political situation has become unstable during such a time.''
Although the LDP has partly recovered from last year's blows, leaders had hoped this election for the 512 seats in the lower house would clean up the party's tarnished reputation and let the steam out of voter anger toward a nine-month-old consumption tax.
But what will be left unresolved by this election - assuming pollsters are correct in predicting a slim LDP victory - will be whether the party can pass bills without compromising with the opposition in the upper house and whether Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu will be removed sooner rather than later by contenders within his own party.
``If the government is full of confusion, Japan's international leadership will decrease,'' says Shigezo Hayasaka, a political commentator. ``Then, Japan's stance with other countries will be weaker.''
Many analysts say Japan may need to hold another election within a year to break a political tug of war either between the upper and lower house or to solve a dispute between powerful LDP factions competing to name a prime minister.
One campaign issue will be the debate over whether to revise or abolish the 3 percent consumption tax. To many voters, the tax is not only a burden but a symbol of LDP arrogance after nearly 35 years in power. The Japan Socialist Party, which heads a coalition of opposition parties, has tried to paint the election as a referendum on abolition of the tax.
The three main opposition parties failed to put up enough candidates to even come close to gaining a majority. And their only common ground was opposing the tax and LDP. The Socialists themselves admit they can garner only a quarter of the lower-house seats. Analysts criticize the opposition for failing to come up with issues beyond what they used for victory in last July's upper-house election.
Even if the LDP fails to win a majority, it can count on about a dozen independent conservatives to join its forces. Still, almost a third of voters remain undecided.
Some analysts say wide public disillusionment began after Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita resigned last spring following the stocks-for-favor Recruit Company scandal. He is widely seen as still controlling the LDP as head of the most powerful of five party factions.
``Japanese politics entered a period of instability after Takeshita stepped down,'' says Mr. Hayasaka. ``The old framework collapsed, but a new framework has yet to take its place. It may take three or four years to be rebuilt.''
Kaifu, who was chosen last August as the cleanest and least-threatening party leader, is from the smallest faction. He suits Takeshita well for now, says Mr. Shiratori, but LDP old timer Shintaro Abe is maneuvering to become prime minister this year.
``If Abe moves quickly after this election to remove Kaifu, that will really be privatizing politics. People won't stand for it,'' says Kuniko Inoguchi,a Sophia University political science professor.
Former Foreign Minister Abe has a firm foundation inside the LDP, says Mr. Hayasaka, and he can move to oust Kaifu only well before the summit of Western leaders in July or after the November enthronement of the new emperor, to avoid embarrassing Japan when it is in the spotlight.
Feeling vulnerable in this election, the LDP ``is not fighting with policy, but with money,'' says Shiratori.
LDP leaders deny reports that they squeezed big business for more than $200 million in campaign contributions or the charge by Socialist Party chairwoman Takako Doi that the new tax revenue is being siphoned off for LDP use.
The government estimates that campaign spending amounts to $416,000 per house seat.