Japanese voters may be fond of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But in Sunday's parliamentary elections, they abandoned his Liberal Democratic Party in record numbers, giving the long-governing party one of its weakest shows of support in many years and signalling major change in Japan's urban politics.
Prime Minister Koizumi's ruling LDP coalition survived the vote, and is being described here as "stable." But the vote count is lower than in the last general election in 2000, a disappointment for the ruling coalition.
Despite a drizzly day and a low turnout - both expected to help the LDP - the opposition Democratic Party of Japan scored heavily in urban areas. It even contested the LDP in some traditional rural strongholds, underscoring voter dissatisfaction and a tide of support for change, analysts say.
The DPJ, or Minshuto, which bills itself as less overtly tied to US interests than Koizumi, and less dependent upon old Japanese political families, appears to be a rising force in Japan.
"Time is not on the LDP's side; it appears to be an outmoded party. The LDP did badly even though its leader is popular," says Gerald Curtis, a Japan specialist from Columbia University who also teaches in Japan. "The opposition party did well, even though Japanese voters don't think its leader Naoto Kan should be prime minister."
At press time, the ruling coalition had taken 252 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, according to the Japanese network NHK, with the Minshuto apparently scoring as high as 173. That tally continued the rise of the opposition party from the late 1990s, when it held under 100 seats. The number of seats needed to retain majority control of the lower house is 241.
Whether a divided Japanese parliament will be able to stymiethe initiatives of Koizumi and the ruling coalition is unclear.
Koizumi has staked his political life on his role as a reformer, dismantling the tight hold that Japan's bloated bureaucracy has on public money and on the LDP itself.
But the prime minister has been unable to effect much change since taking high office in 2001. Voters here now routinely view Koizumi as having slacked in his reform promises.
Koizumi had also been determined to send troops to Iraq as early as this month - and to undertake gradual changes in Japan's postwar constitution that will allow him to send forces abroad.
Now, political analysts here say, the prime minister will continue on this same path - but an emboldened and more vocal opposition will make his pathway less smooth, and potentially undermine his position inside the faction-ridden LDP.
"I think he [Koizumi] will go forward with troops to Iraq ... but he's getting no new energy out of this election," says Mr. Curtis.
In Japan, he largest voting bloc is of unaffiliated or independent voters. Prior to the vote, predictions over which forces would win swung wildly across the spectrum, with seasoned political analysts predicting wide margins of victory for both parties, and others claiming the polls were incorrect.
Sunday's election has brought Japan closer to what appears to be two-party democratic rule for the first time in its history. The election was the first in which both major parties, the LDP and Minshuto, published detailed accounts or "manifestos" - allowing the voters a choice in policies. However, most analysts pointed out that the differences between the two parties are in fact very small.
Naoto Kan, the leader of Minshuto, stated last week that he would seek for an eventual draw down of US Marines in Okinawa, and the party seeks to eventually align itself more closely to the United Nations, rather than the US - though what this means in practice has yet to be spelled out.
The outcome is a special blow to Koizumi's strategy of pushing youthful party members at the expense of older powerbrokers. Young Shinzo Abe in particular, the architect of Japan's negotiations with North Korea, and newly enshrined as the No. 2 man in Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, will now have a fight in order to stay in the penultimate position.
With a coalition rule, moreover, the small Buddhist-based New Komeito party, which scored 34 seats Sunday - gains a great say in Japanese politics, in proportion to its actual numbers.