Before You Can Say Kabuki, Japan's Drama May Be Over

In American political terms, this campaign will be over before you can say "New Hampshire primary."

If all goes as expected, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto will dissolve parliament Sept. 27 and set general elections for Oct. 20, kicking off a political season that will last all of three-and-a-half weeks.

The campaign will be short, but for many Japanese it is long overdue. Since the last general elections in August 1993, the country has been run by a series of coalition governments whose members have diverged widely on policy.

The elections will choose 500 people to sit in Japan's lower house of parliament, which in turn elects the prime minister. The balloting will be the first test of a new electoral system adopted two years ago in a burst of enthusiasm for political reform.

The elections will also help determine whether this country is gradually adopting a more open, issue-oriented political system or whether the Japanese are more comfortable being led by a single, dominant party.

The confidence of the prime minister and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) indicates a faith in the second option. Hashimoto is not required to call elections until the middle of next year, but his party's approval ratings have been moving upward in recent months. At the same time, the country's other parties - with one or two exceptions, including a resurgent Communist Party - are in disarray.

"It is my belief that the election will reinforce a trend toward a reemergence of a large, stable, dominant political party," says Koichi Kato, the LDP's general secretary.

Japan is engaged in what is known here as "political realignment," but so far the process has been so halting and murky that it is difficult to see much progress. Reformers have insisted that the style of government that Japan favored for much of the postwar era - uninterrupted rule by the LDP - is a cold-war relic. LDP rule was opaque - policy decisions were made in private consultations with the country's powerful bureaucrats and business executives whose companies provided copious political funding. It was also effective, when you consider Japan's remarkable ascension to economic superpower status.

But the LDP's 38-year grip on power was broken in 1993 by the defections of some younger party members who styled themselves as reformers. A series of political-money scandals also damaged the LDP's standing with voters. Reformers managed to put together two administrations in the wake of the 1993 elections, but they only lasted 10 months.

The reformers - many of whom are now in opposition parties - continue to claim that global trends toward democracy and the desire of the Japanese people for more transparent politics are on their side. Indeed, in nationwide elections for seats in parliament's Upper House held last July, the opposition New Frontier Party beat the LDP in the proportional representation part of the balloting, a popularity contest in which voters pick a party rather than a candidate. It was the first time the LDP had ever lost such a contest.

That outcome suggested to many analysts that there was a genuine desire among voters for a political system that features two strong parties. The NFP has advocated this arrangement, arguing that it would lead to a more open government in which voters would elect candidates based on policy rather than personality or patronage.

But since the upper house elections, the NFP has faded from view, with its approval ratings sinking into the teens or occasionally into single digits. The party is a collection of different groups, so finding unity and a common voice has been difficult.

The hodgepodge nature of the LDP and the NFP has all but eliminated policy debates, since each party includes politicians of different ideologies who tend to spend a lot of time arguing internally.

Of course the NFP isn't conceding anything at this stage. "We believe it is possible for the NFP to win an outright majority in the elections," says Takeo Nishioka, the NFP's general secretary. The LDP has effectively been back in power since June 1994 when it formed a coalition with Japan's socialists and a third political party. This January Hashimoto was chosen to lead the coalition, making him the fourth man to serve as premier since the last election.

In recent months, the popularity of Hashimoto and the LDP has been rising. Japan's economic recovery is not yet a sure thing, but the economy at least appears to be on the rebound after years of recession. And the prime minister has won some points by easing a standoff over American bases in Okinawa and appearing capable of handling Japan's international relations.

Most analysts say neither party can win the majority of seats necessary to form a government on its own. That is one reason why politicians not affiliated with the NFP and the LDP are scrambling to create a third party - one that could be a kingmaker.

This group is calling itself the Democratic Party, even though it has not yet been officially formed. Japanese voters are generally apathetic these days - turnouts have been declining for years - but the Democratic Party may spark some excitement.

One of the new party's leaders is Health Minister Naoto Kan, who has won broad support for his forthright handling of some sensitive issues, such as his ministry's role in exposing hemophiliacs to blood products tainted with HIV. His current party is one of the LDP's coalition partners.

In a poll conducted last week by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's leading economic daily, Mr. Kan came in second after Hashimoto when people were asked who should be prime minister.

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