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Campaigning officially started on Tuesday for the June 25 Lower House election, which is of particular significance to Japan because it will basically determine the nature and direction of Japanese politics at the beginning of the 21st century. As such, the general election — the first in three years and eight months — will also significantly affect the nation’s course.

Voters are interested above all in what candidates and parties have to offer in terms of policies for the future. Intertwined with this are two issues: whether the current tripartite ruling coalition should continue to lead the nation, and whether Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is fit to continue as chief executive, given his repeated verbal blunders in recent weeks.

Japanese politics faces a severe test of confidence. The test hinges largely on whether politicians can come up with credible plans of action in areas of critical concern to the people, such as economic recovery, social security, job creation and educational reform. Failure to do so will only increase the public’s distrust of politics. In this sense, the biggest issue in this election is politics itself.

One big question in the coming election is whether the three-way coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Conservative Party will stay in power by securing a stable majority, or whether the opposition parties combined will win enough seats to drive the coalition parties from power.

Since the last Lower House election, in 1996, power has changed hands often, from the one-party administration of the LDP to the two-way coalition of the LDP and the Liberal Party, then to the three-way coalition of the LDP, the LP and Komeito and, most recently, to the tripartite union of the LDP, Komeito and the Conservative Party, an LP splinter group. However, one thing has remained unchanged: the LDP has always remained at the center of coalition politics.

The coalition parties have relied heavily on their numerical strength in getting key bills through the Diet, including measures affecting the nation’s future. But they have also used their numbers to hold back progress on other critical issues, such as social security. Thus, LDP-centered coalition politics has proved to be a double-edged sword.

The governing parties credit their coalition with achieving political stability. To counter this, the opposition parties should present their own vision of government. At the moment, however, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, seems to be at odds with the other parties over basic principles and policies. The DPJ, which is apparently seeking a postelection realignment of parties, should tell the voters what kind of coalition government it would form.

Mr. Mori and the other coalition leaders, on the other hand, should make clear to voters exactly what the tripartite coalition is trying to achieve. The Mori administration’s popularity has plummeted since the prime minister committed yet another verbal blunder in mid-May. He has offered apologies and clarifications, but voters will render their final judgment only at the polling booth.

Another major question is what policies Japan should adopt for the next century. The issues at stake are many: economic recovery, deficit reduction, social security, juvenile crime, educational reform and the moves to revise the Constitution. Of course, foreign and defense policies for dealing with the post-Cold War international situation are also of vital importance.

Both the ruling and opposition parties should offer voters credible scenarios of how they propose to address these issues, particularly in the areas of economic recovery and fiscal reform. The heads of the seven major parties, who conducted a joint open debate on Monday, should continue such discussions to express their specific views so that voters can make realistic and informed choices.

Voters should also weigh their decisions from the viewpoint of administrative reform. Beginning in January 2001, the nation will have a leaner government, with the number of central government offices cut almost in half. This step is aimed at breaking the bureaucratic mold of politics and putting politicians back in the driver’s seat.

Public confidence is the heart of democratic politics. However, the political numbers games of the past have increased public distrust of politics generally and of political parties in particular. The coalition lineup has been changed time and again in order to assemble a majority. Parties have met and parted, apparently with little regard for beliefs and policies. Politicians have also changed parties with surprising ease. The coming election offers them an opportunity to restore the public’s trust in politics.

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