- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

TOKYO — Nobody expects Japan’s main opposition party to unseat Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democrats in elections this weekend, but they might pull within range of another elusive goal: the creation of a viable two-party system.

Capitalizing on voter frustration with government waste, a long stagnant economy and successive scandals under the Liberal Democratic Party, the opposition Democrats are putting up the most serious challenge to the ruling bloc in years.

“This election is also about whether we can create a new Japanese democracy,” Democratic leader Naoto Kan has told voters. “Whether we can build a two-party system depends on the outcome of this election.”

During the high-growth postwar decades when the dominance of the Liberal Democrats was at its peak, Mr. Koizumi’s predecessors barely acknowledged those running against them.

This time, Mr. Koizumi told voters that when they head to the polls Sunday for national parliamentary elections, they also will be deciding whether they want him or Mr. Kan to be prime minister.

All 480 seats are up for grabs, and Mr. Koizumi has said he will step down as prime minister if the ruling coalition headed by his Liberal Democratic Party doesn’t win a majority. Most analysts expect it to top 241.

The only time in the past 50 years a non-LDP force has held the government was a period from 1993 to 1994, when groups of lawmakers broke with the LDP following a power struggle within the party. An unwieldy coalition of opposition parties took over but lasted only eight months.

Analysts believe the voting population still may not be ready to oust the LDP.

“It will be difficult for the Democrats to realize a change in government right away,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor at Hokkaido University. “But there is a mood that this is an election to select a governing party, and this is a step forward.”

The Democrats owe part of their newfound strength to their absorption of a smaller rival party earlier in the year. That helped unify dispersed opposition forces against the LDP’s coalition.

They also have hammered together a policy platform to convince voters they are capable of leading the country despite their lack of experience.

Although the charismatic Mr. Koizumi is one of Japan’s most popular prime ministers in recent history, his party is struggling to battle the impression it is beholden to powerful special interests and is incapable of reform.

The Democrats control 137 seats in the lower house, but opinion polls and analysts say they could add another 30 seats Sunday. The LDP has 247 seats.

Though direct comparisons are impossible because reforms shrank the lower house to 480 seats from 500, the last time a single opposition party controlled that many lawmakers was 1958, when the Socialists boasted 166.

Unfortunately for those who would like to see the LDP pushed from power, the Democrats look likely to make many of their gains at the expense of opposition rivals — mainly the Social Democrats and the Japan Communist Party.

Communist leader Kazuo Shii says the Democrats’ free-market, pro-competition policies do little to distinguish them from LDP. The Democrats want to build the same society as the LDP, just at a different speed, Mr. Shii said.

Analysts say, though, that putting the Democrats in power would crack open the tight network of bureaucrats, industrial leaders and LDP lawmakers that have dominated Japan’s economy and government for the past several decades.

“Whether to end the LDP’s long rule is a major issue,” said Mr. Yamaguchi. “So even if the Democrats and the LDP’s policy differences aren’t so great, the matter of which party we should entrust the country with is very important.”

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