THE results of a closely watched special parliamentary election have given Japan's fractious opposition parties something to celebrate and its ruling coalition a firm sense of the difficulties that lie ahead.
Voters in Aichi Prefecture, which includes the industrial center of Nagoya just west of Tokyo, elected an opposition lawmaker to the upper house of parliament on Sunday by an overwhelming margin. The upper house is a largely ceremonial body, but yesterday politicians and analysts were busy assessing the race's symbolic meaning.
Although Japan's political life has been refreshingly quiet since the Diet (parliament) elected Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama at the end of June, the Aichi race has revived the ongoing discussion about the emergence of new alignments.
Mr. Murayama heads a coalition that consists mainly of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the dominant political force of postwar Japan, and his own Social Democratic Party. It is an odd arrangement, since the LDP and the Socialists were rivals for almost four decades, but the coalition members claim a shared ideology based on the respect for Japan's pacifist Constitution. And they have offered stability after a year of political upheaval.
The two parties together backed a former United Nations official named Jiro Mizuno. Murayama, along with a host of other politicians, took time to stump for him. But Mr. Mizuno lost by a landslide.
The race showed the Socialists and the LDP have a long way to go in convincing voters bygones should be bygones. Political commentator Yoichi Masuzoe calls the Aichi race a ``fatal blow'' to the ruling coalition, since it underscores how skeptical voters are about the union of Socialists and the LDP. Murayama himself concedes the ruling parties failed to coordinate their activities.
The winner was a former federal bureaucrat, Yuzuru Tsuzuki, who took 43 percent of the votes, compared with Mizuno's 25 percent. He was backed by Japan's eight main opposition groups.
Led by onetime LDP politicians who have been abandoning the party for more than a year, the opposition immediately claimed Mr. Tsuzuki's victory as evidence that the public is on its side. These groups managed to wrest power from the LDP a little over a year ago, and ran two coalition governments of their own until the LDP and the Socialists teamed up at the end of June.
Since then, they have had difficulty getting organized. Leaders have repeatedly promised the formation of a large, single party to counter the LDP-Socialist group, but many Japanese have been skeptical about the politicians' ability to find common ground.
A unified opposition would likely advocate a more internationally active Japan, a policy that could involve changes to the Constitution.
Even though the opposition groups have so far found real unity elusive, the Aichi race suggests that they can work together. A former prime minister named Toshiki Kaifu - who quit the LDP and joined the opposition in June - took it upon himself to lead Tsuzuki's campaign. Mr. Kaifu is from Aichi, so he risked great embarrassment in taking so public a role in this campaign. Conversely, he can now lay claim to a leading role if the opposition groups can coalesce.
Tsuzuki's victory may very well help them do that. ``It will speed their efforts to get together because they taste success from cooperation,'' says John Neuffer, who watches Japanese politics at a corporate think tank called the Mitsui Marine Research Institute in Tokyo.
Now the politicians will go back to their drawing rooms. Murayama's coalition maintains a firm majority in the Diet, so the near future promises more calm. But upcoming local elections and an upper house election next summer will give both sides opportunities to replay Aichi on a much broader scale.