The question was never whether Japan's Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori would win or lose in Sunday's parliamentary elections, but how he would play the game. Or, more precisely, how many players he would lose in the process.
According to exit polls available at press time, Mori's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looked set to win 223 seats, less than the 241 out of 480 seats the party would need to rule on its own. But combined with its two coalition partners, the Buddhist Komeito Party and the New Conservative Party, LDP would control a 259-seat bloc that promises to keep the coalition in power for the time being.
In the runup to the elections, the polls showed that Japan's 100 million voters were hardly happy with Mr. Mori: In recent weeks, less than 20 percent of those polled said they approved of him.
Yet voters still gave Mori's ruling coalition an apparent majority in the Diet's powerful lower house - while almost half of them chose to remain silent.
Still, Sunday's vote delivers something of a rap on the knuckles for Mori, who took over after the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a fatal stroke in April. The last ruling coalition enjoyed 335 seats - out of a then 500-seat house - 267 of them held by his LDP. The loss of seats comes at time when Mori even had a host of factors working in his favor: sympathy for Mr. Obuchi and other recently departed notables, voter apathy, and even the bad weather.
But none of those managed to offset completely the bad taste Mori has left in the mouths of many Japanese, who complain at turns about his handling of the still-limp economy, his alliance with a religious party many mistrust, and his spate of gaffes that have made him look either politically incorrect at best, or at worst, neo-nationalistic.
Newspapers took digs at Mori in recent days for referring to IT - Information Technology - as "IC." And after referring to Japan last month as a "divine nation with the emperor at its core," days before Sunday's election he said that voters who had not yet made up their minds should sleep late.
Many apparently did. Many of those who did roll out of bed hung about places like Shibuya Station, a youth mecca of trendy shops and boy bands. "I don't know where my polling station is," says Yasuhiro Tsuki, a young man with dyed red hair. "I voted once and nothing changed. I'm not interested, so I stopped listening to what they're saying. Except Mori, because he's pretty funny."
Out in the countryside, where the LDP regularly funnels money for public works projects, the elections were taken much more seriously. Japan's electoral system favors conservative rural provinces, with many districts lacking candidates to challenge incumbents.
In Tokyo, election day was dampened by a drippy, gray sky in which the sun never rose, typical for the summer rainy season of tsuyu. Much of Japan also followed established patterns and primarily stayed with the LDP, not despite economic and social uncertainty but because of it.
In the world's fastest aging society, says Ron Morse, professor of political economy at Reitaku University outside of Tokyo, "retirement benefits look shaky," and that leads many to shun thoughts of major change.
"At a time like that, the American sense is, 'Let's change horses,' " says Morse. "The Japanese sense is, 'Let's hang on.' There's a certain built-in inertia."
But political alliances, like the tsuyu, do not last forever. As the LDP's election math come up short - while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan looked poised to add some 40 seats - some say Mori might be replaced.
"The approval rate for the prime minister will likely decrease to less than 10 percent because of Mori's slips of the tongue," say Masayuki Fukuoka, a political scientist at Hakuo University. "The political situation will be focused on the question of who will get the post of prime minister after Mori."
*Yasue Aoi contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society