Official campaigning is under way for the June 25 general election. This will be the first Japanese general election to be held in three years and eight months, following the last poll in October 1996. The new Lower House, whose term will run to 2004, will be the center of national politics as Japan enters the 21st century.

A total of 1,404 candidates are vying for 480 seats — 300 in single-seat constituencies and 180 in the proportional representation section. The simple majority will be 241. The number of eligible voters has exceeded 100 million for the first time in Japanese history.

The battle pits the tripartite ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party against the opposition forces of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party.

The focal question in the election will be whether the LDP will win 241 seats for a simple majority or, failing that, whether the three-party alliance will obtain 250 seats or more for an absolute majority.

The DPJ, the top opposition party, is unlikely to win more than 200 seats, but the possibility that the four opposition parties will win a combined majority cannot be ruled out.

The outcome of the battle between the three ruling parties and four opposition parties will determine Japan’s post-election politics.

Most political pundits say the opposition forces have little chance of wresting power from the ruling coalition, but the election results are impossible to predict, especially so early in the campaign.

If the ruling coalition barely wins the election, serious confusion will likely surround the formation of a new government. This is because Yoshiro Mori’s fitness as prime minister has become one of the main election issues. He has committed a series of political gaffes since he took over power in early April from the late Keizo Obuchi, who was then ailing. The blunders have plunged the Mori Cabinet’s popularity ratings to record lows.

Depending on the election results, Mori could:

* stay in power for a long time, should the LDP win a strong election victory;

* risk losing his job if the ruling coalition ekes out a narrow victory;

* serve as caretaker prime minister until Japan hosts the Group of Eight summit in southern Japan in late July.

The opposition parties also have a number of problems. To start with, they are in disarray, while the ruling three-party coalition intends to continue its tieup after the election. The DPJ, the LP and the SDP are stepping up their cooperation in the campaign, but wide differences still remain between the conservative LP and the liberal SDP. The three parties keep the JCP at arms’ length.

Thus even if the election were to result in almost equal strengths for the ruling and opposition camps, decisive confrontations between the two camps in the new Lower House are unlikely.

More likely is an alliance between the DPJ under Yukio Hatoyama and LDP liberals under Koichi Kato. This will depend on the judgment and determination of both groups regarding the political importance of the new Lower House for the 21st century.

The election results will hinge largely on voter turnout. The turnout rate of 65 percent will be critical. If the rate is around 60 percent, Japan will remain dominated by old-fashioned politics. If it rises to around 70 percent, drastic political reform will be possible.

Japan’s political future will depend on the turnout of voters without party affiliations.

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