BRUSSELS — Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has been in office less than 12 months, yet polls show popular support for his administration running around 20 percent. Fukuda and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) face a bleak future.

Last year it was revealed that the administration had lost 50 million pension-contribution records from 20 million people, and this year it failed to seek renewal of the petroleum tax in time to prevent a four-week tax holiday for motorists when the opposition-controlled Upper House refused to roll over.

It has gone from bad to worse. Last July, Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, was so unpopular that the LDP lost the Upper House elections to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

For the first time the DPJ, with the support of the tiny Japan Communist Party and the even tinier Social Democratic Party (formerly the Japan Socialist Party or JSP), was able to block LDP legislation so that the LDP in the Lower House had to vote a second time, with a two-thirds majority, to enact the bills. The LDP has dominated the Lower House since then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landslide victory in 2005.

In April a Lower House by-election saw a conservative seat in Yamaguchi Prefecture fall to the DPJ by 21,934 votes. The Democrats believe they are on the threshold of power, as general elections can’t be put off past September 2009.

Since the end of World War II, Japan’s postwar politics has been an uneven contest between right and left. The LDP (born 1955) used its money, media support and organizing muscle to wipe the floor at intervals of a few years with a JSP divided into a variety of leftist factions owing their allegiance to Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.

It was all made easier by an electoral system from hell — multimember constituencies with a single nontransferable vote, gerrymandered against urban areas where up to five times more votes were required to elect a Diet member than in the LDP countryside.

This electoral edifice began to crumble with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, which coincided with the first hint that all was not well at the heart of Japan’s economic miracle in the early 1990s. The economy sputtered and then ground to a halt as nepotism, bureaucracy and corruption finally strangled innovation, enterprise and a work ethic that would have put the average Protestant to shame.

The result was a decade swirling with political realignment of the center-left. From the kaleidoscope of new parties that came and went — the New Frontier Party and the Taiyo Party, the Japan New Party and the New Party Sakigake — the DPJ finally emerged in 1998. The DPJ is an uneasy coalition of former populist and progressive factions of the LDP, the former Democratic Socialist Party and a large chunk of the JSP. Its current leader, Ichiro Ozawa, is a self-confident nationalist whose book “Blueprint for a New Japan” makes the case for Japan becoming a “normal country” that deploys troops abroad and engages in peacemaking operations.

Ideologically a liberal, Ozawa’s alter ego is the party’s general secretary, Yukio Hatoyama, who could fit easily within the curtilage of the Socialist International. Some members are even further to the left; 23 Upper House members effectively are sponsored by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO).

The DPJ looks well-placed for the next general elections. It took the lead in trying to increase the minimum wage and deal with the plight of “irregular workers,” who make up a third of the workforce, and is aided by an apparent willingness to come to some electoral arrangement with the Social Democratic Party. It would almost certainly embrace the SDP in a coalition if required.

The JCP is more of a problem. It would be both unthinkable and unacceptable for the DPJ to be seen negotiating with this unreformed party stranded ideologically in the wastes of the Cold War. Yet the JCP would support in crucial votes a DPJ government from outside the Cabinet. Anything to break the political logjam.

The JCP has moved from contesting each and every election to picking and choosing its fights. When it chose not to stand in the Yamaguchi by-election, it virtually assured the DPJ of victory. Since 2005, 85 percent of JCP voters have switched to the Democrats. In the coming general elections, JCP members’ absence in key constituencies could be decisive. Yet it will be a sacrifice. Failure to stand in constituencies will lose them seats in the proportional representation section of the election.

The LDP still has a final card to play. Fukuda is certainly safe until after the Group of Eight industrialized nations’ summit in Hokkaido in July, but then the vultures will circle. Traditionally a change in leadership has given the LDP an electoral bounce. Two candidates are hovering in the wings, both considered “outsiders” to some degree:

(1) Yuriko Koike, educated at American University in Cairo, speaks Arabic. Originally elected in the opposition Japan New Party in 1992, she crossed over to the LDP in 2003 and served briefly in 2007 as defense minister under Abe.

(2) Taro Aso, a hardline nationalist, was educated at Stanford and the London School of Economics. He is a rare Catholic in a country of Buddhist light-believers. A former foreign minister under Koizumi and Abe, he is a manga enthusiast, especially for the “Gothic Lolita” Rozen Maiden.

Either candidate could take over, present a quick populist policy package and call a snap election. The only question is whether the electorate have learned their lesson as in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” song.

Glyn Ford, a member of the European Parliament on the Japan delegation, recently returned from Japan where he participated in a Party of European Socialists Dialogue with the DPJ, SDP and RENGO.

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