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The June 25 Lower House election ended with a voter turnout of only 62.49 percent. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a sharp setback, with its strength decreasing to 233 seats from a pre-election figure of 271. On the other hand, the top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, saw its strength increase to 127 seats from 95.

New Komeito won 31 seats, down from 42; the Liberal Party 22, up from 18; the Japan Communist Party 20, down from 26; the Social Democratic Party 19, up from 14; the New Conservative Party seven, down from 18; and minor parties and independents 21, up from 15. Electoral reforms cut the total number of seats to 480 from 500.

What do these figures tell?

First, the LDP’s setback and the DPJ’s gain narrowed the gap between the ruling party and the No. 1 opposition party to a little more than 100 seats. This could be a harbinger of a political system of two major parties in Japan.

Second, New Komeito’s decline showed the limit of a political party backed by a religious organization, the Buddhist-affiliated Soka Gakkai. The JCP’s setback stemmed from its obsession with an established ideology. The LP, under Ichiro Ozawa, and the SDP, under Takako Doi, owed their increased power to their charismatic leaders.

This was the second general election held under an electoral system combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation sections. Up for grabs were 300 seats in single-seat constituencies and 180 in proportional representation sections.

Political experts say the British-style single-seat constituency system tends to encourage the creation of two major parties, while the continental-style proportional representation system tends to lead to the establishment of a multiparty system that reflects wide-ranging value systems. Japan combined the two systems following intensive debate on electoral reforms. The latest election results appear to prod Japan toward a two-party system.

As a single party, the LDP failed to secure a majority of 241 seats or more. But the LDP-New Komeito-New Conservative Party coalition held on to combined 271 seats for an absolute majority, enabling Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to remain in power.

Mori is expected to be re-elected prime minister at a special Diet session to be convened July 4. He will form his new Cabinet the same day. The new administration’s immediate challenge is to make the Group of Eight summit, to be held in Okinawa in late July, a high-profile success.

Mori’s new tripartite administration is likely to face serious difficulties in the coming months for the following reasons:

* Mori has leadership and image problems. In May, he caused an uproar with his statement that Japan was “a nation of gods centering on the Emperor.” During the election campaign in June, he committed another gaffe, remarking he wished uncommitted voters “would stay home and sleep” on election day to give the LDP and the ruling coalition an advantage. His statements cast doubt on his fitness to serve as prime minister.

* New Komeito, a ruling-coalition partner, suffered an election setback as a result of campaign cooperation with the LDP. The New Conservative Party, another partner, won only seven seats and is likely to be absorbed by the LDP eventually.

* Several sitting Cabinet ministers and influential lawmakers of the LDP failed to win re-election, stirring resentment in LDP factions other than the Mori group.

* Following their election gains, the DPJ and the LP are likely to step up criticism of the ruling forces.

After the G8 summit ends, political turbulence is likely. There is mounting speculation that Mori will be only a caretaker prime minister until the Upper House election is held a year from now.

The DPJ also is plagued by a host of problems, despite its strong election gain. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama failed to demonstrate strong leadership in the campaign, and because of policy differences, it would be difficult for the DPJ to forge a tieup with either the conservative LP or the liberal SDP. The DPJ has taken a good first step toward possible national rule but it remains to be seen if it will continue to move toward the goal in the 2001 Upper House election and the next Lower House election.

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