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Mori on the campaign trail.
Analysis: Mori Hangs On, But Cracks Emerge
Sunday's vote was hardly clear cut: nobody really won, but nobody really lost
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo Bureau Chief

Elections in Japan typically are rather tepid affairs. There is a relatively short official campaign period of just 12 days. And debates between opponents are virtually nonexistent; they were banned for many years. But that didn't stop political junkies and soothysayers from hoping for an upset in Sunday's vote. Betting against years of political reality that told them otherwise, they hoped against hope for the kind of reverberations that recently shook up Asian neighbors South Korea and Taiwan. Maybe a tsunami of political change would wash up on Japan's shore and drown the establishment Liberal Democratic Party once and for all, they thought Yeah right, and maybe the sad-sack Hanshin Tigers will finally win baseball's Japan series.

Instead, what Japan woke up to Monday was the equivalent of (another) Tokyo Giants baseball title. In other words: The same old story. At least it looks that way at first glance: The LDP was, again, the most popular vote-getter, although it lost ground, winning fewer seats in this slimmed-down Lower House of Parliament than it did in 1996. But it and its two coalition partners, New Komeito and the New Conservatives, won enough seats to comfortably hold onto a majority. That means that in the short term, nothing much will change. The government will likely continue its profligate ways with stimulus packages designed to buy Japan's way back to economic recovery.

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The LDP has had a hammerlock on governing in the postwar era, sitting atop the political heap continuously, except for a brief 10-month period in 1993 and 1994. Even though it won--sort of--Sunday's vote, it did so unconvincingly with the second lowest turnout in modern times‹with just 63% of eligible voters. That's more than the dismal turnout in 1996, but just barely. And considering the huge pile of important issues Japan faces--its mounting debt, for one, record unemployment and an epidemic of police and military scandals--and the fact that it has one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers ever in Yoshiro Mori, the relatively low turnout is dispiriting.

Even Mori's most recent gaffe failed to get a rise out of the citizenry. He said last week that he hoped the huge bloc of undecided, unaligned voters--nearly 50% according to recent surveys--would wake up Sunday and decide to stay in bed. Now there's an inspirational rallying cry: Not sure who to vote for? Then don't! That brand of cynicism and arrogance might be enough to get the blood boiling in other countries, but not in Japan. Sadly, the unimpressive Mori seems to have his finger right on the pulse of Japan's electorate, and that pulse appears to be barely beating.

So that's depressing, right? Japan is in a heap of trouble and nobody cares. Well, maybe not. As unremarkable as Sunday's election seems at first blush, future generations may look back on this first vote of the 21st century as one that began the slow unraveling of Japan's political status quo. Here we have to inject the standard caveat about the perils of predicting political change in Japan. Change here is evolutionary and slow. A huge upset at the polls, like the one in Taiwan earlier this year, isn't likely to happen. Ever. But if you buy the argument that change is incremental, then steps like Sunday's election are as important as something more cataclysmic.

Remember, the LDP lost seats compared to the 1996 vote. Then, it had 271 out of 500. This time, it looks to have about 235 out of 480 (Electoral reforms slimmed down the Lower House by 20 seats in the interim). The main opposition party, the Democrats, gained ground. In 1996, it had 95 seats; this time, it will have about 127.

An already established trend was also reaffirmed on Sunday: The LDP continues to hold sway in rural areas (the Democrats' leader, Yukio Hatoyama, nearly lost his Hokkaido prefecture seat); and the Democrats are proving to be more popular in urban areas, even though their leaders presented a rather inarticulate platform in this election and failed to capitalize on the enormous dissatisfaction with the LDP that is growing in the country.

But as we said, change is incremental. These results may be pointing Japan in a direction of something close to a two-party system, because the other, smaller parties failed to generate much heat on Sunday. That includes the ultraconservative New Komeito, one of the LDP's coalition partners famous for its vote-generating machine among the members of a Buddhist organization that back the party. New Komeito actually lost ground this time.

The LDP also has problems internally. Three of the party's most powerful scions--Noboru Takeshita, Seiroku Kajiyama, and Keizo Obuchi, the Prime Minister who Mori succeeded--all died in the last month. Their blood relatives--Takeshita's brother, Kajiyama's son and Obuchi's daughter--handily won election to replace them, as expected, but they don't command the same power.

The sun is finally setting on the days of the shadow shoguns--those behind-the-scenes powerbrokers who pull the strings and really determine Japan's political future. But not just yet. In the days ahead, the infamous machinations of the LDP will go to work as leaders figure out if they can live with the unpopular Mori as their Prime Minister. For even though the voting is over, the electioneering that matters is only just beginning.

The cruel reality is that Japanese voters don't have that much say over who will be their Prime Minister. That is left to the secretive work of the LDP factions. The largest group--the one led by the now deceased Takeshita and Obuchi--went outside its ranks to pick Mori as PM after Obuchi fell ill in April, but his poor performance and the lackluster showing of New Komeito at the polls, could give a stronger say to the more liberal faction of the LDP, which wants Mori out.

As unsavory as a Mori-led administration seems to just about everybody in Japan right now, he probably won't be toppled yet. Japan is hosting the summit of G-8 nations next month, and Japan's leaders have an inflated sense of that summit's importance and probably won't want to host it with yet another new face. Instead, Mori's opponents will probably focus on the next round of elections, for Japan's Upper House (scheduled for July 2001), as a way to oust him.

So what does all this mean? Stay tuned for more verbal blunders from Mori! The results Sunday were hardly clear cut. Nobody really won. But nobody really lost. Long term, however, the vote shows vulnerable cracks in the LDP machine. That big bloc of swing voters that Mori urged to stay home won't stay so passive forever. That leaves a large pool of voters that LDP opponents would be smart to target in coming months. While they decry Mori for his cynicism, they should remember that nothing they said or did managed to get those voters out of bed, either. If the Democrats themselves could present a cogent, sensible platform--how hard can it be to come up with something to contrast itself with the LDP?--then it would have the makings of a real threat.

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