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A round of parliamentary by-elections set for Oct. 27 is seen widely as a prelude to the next general election. Voters are expected to pass judgment on the job performance of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration for the past 18 months. Campaigning for Upper House elections in Chiba and Tottori prefectures started officially on Thursday; that for Lower House polls in five districts begins this week.

The central concern is the economy, which appears headed for further stagnation amid falling stock prices and growing banking troubles. Structural reforms initiated by the Koizumi administration have so far produced few tangible results. Political corruption — which forced four legislators to resign during the last regular Diet session — is also a major issue. There is also a hot diplomatic issue: dealing with North Korea’s admission that its agents abducted Japanese citizens.

Given the relatively small number of seats at stake, however, election results will have no direct impact on the power balance in the Diet or the immediate future of the Koizumi administration. That may be part of the reason why there is no groundswell of voter sentiment. Political parties do not appear to be very enthusiastic, either. But this does not reduce the significance of the coming elections.

The economy is in a critical stage. Prospects for the Koizumi reforms are uncertain at best. The view is gaining ground that a change of course is unavoidable. Already banking unrest has compelled the administration to put off for two years — beyond April 2003 — the start of limited insurance protection on demand deposits. The commitment to fiscal discipline is threatened by mounting pressures to compile an extra spending budget and remove the 30 trillion yen cap on bond issuance.

Prime Minister Koizumi maintains that there is “no change” in his reform plans. The public is not convinced. He needs to explain clearly where he stands now. Silence can create suspicion. In fact, many doubt whether he is denying any policy shift or reversal for fear of losing his political leadership. If so, he is betraying the public’s trust.

Money politics is a recurring campaign theme, with candidates calling for higher standards of political ethics. Four of the seven seats at stake were vacated as a result of money-related scandals. However, political reform remains a slogan more or less. There is little seriousness to break once and for all the shady ties that bind politics and money. A number of former legislators who have resigned in disgrace are reportedly aiming for a comeback in the next general election.

Diplomacy is rarely a major campaign issue. This time around, though, the abduction issue is fueling an emotionally charged debate on how to handle it. The government finds itself in the difficult position of finding an acceptable solution while negotiating terms of diplomatic normalization with North Korea. With five abducted survivors expected to return home temporarily this week, this issue will have a delicate impact on the election campaign.

Oddly, political parties appear to be taking a sort of laid-back position on these important issues. In particular, the Liberal Democratic Party does not seem to be playing a responsible role as the leading member of the ruling coalition. In most of the seven constituencies, including Lower House districts in Yamagata, Kanagawa, Niigata, Osaka and Fukuoka, the coalition parties are in disarray.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, are attacking the Koizumi administration for committing “blunders” in economic policy. However, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, has no clear-cut plans to seize power. Still smarting from the internal strife that followed last month’s party presidential election, the DPJ appears unwilling, or unable, to lead the opposition camp. Overall, the emerging picture is that of a confused campaign with no clear-cut policy showdown between ruling and opposition parties. Under the circumstances, many voters are likely to stay at home on election day. In fact, analysts are already warning of a low turnout.

Political parties are to blame for all of this. Faced with the scale of the problems that plague the economy, especially the banking sector, they appear to be timid about breaking the deadlock. Indeed, inaction may be the main cause of the “Japan disease.” The forthcoming by-elections — a miniversion of regular national elections — provide, as they should, a golden opportunity to find out what voters really want.

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