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Japanese Election Could Create a True 2-Party System - 2003-11-07

Polls show that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling coalition is set to win the country's general election Sunday. But the election could help transform Japan's political landscape by strengthening the opposition and creating a true two-party system, which Japan has never had.

Japanese voters will cast ballots Sunday in the country's first general election in more than three years. There are 480 seats up for grabs in the Lower House, the more powerful of the parliament's two chambers.

The Liberal Democratic Party is expected to prevail. The LDP has dominated Japanese politics for all but several months since the 1950s. It is counting on the strong popularity of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and on its traditional support base in rural areas.

But the LDP faces a greater threat this year than before. The main opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, seeks to unseat the long ruling LDP.

Tomohito Shinoda is a politics professor at the International University of Japan Research Institute in Niigata. He says although the Democratic Party is likely to lose the election, it could establish itself as an alternative to the Liberal Democrats by gaining seats in parliament.

"I think the most important point we need to watch is how many more seats the Democratic Party is going to increase," he said. "The Democratic Party is going to be a more viable opposition party; they are hoping to become the government party in the future. Even if they cannot get the majority in the Lower House, they will be influential in decision making in Japan."

The Democratic Party was formed in the late 1990s by ruling party defectors and left-wing lawmakers. However, disagreements over security and defense policies weakened it and the party failed to win much public support. In September, it merged with the smaller Liberal Party to form a larger group with more seats in parliament.

Naoto Kan, the Democratic Party head, says his group's approach differs from that of the LDP. He says he hopes voters have the courage to choose and trust his party.

The newly merged group has succeeded in drawing voter attention by borrowing an idea from Britain's Labor Party. It has issued a manifesto promising to stop wasteful government spending, create jobs and make cities safer. More than 10 million copies of the manifesto have been distributed.

Prime Minister Koizumi has followed suit and published 3.5 million copies of a 10-page pamphlet.

Mr. Koizumi has struggled with implementing reforms because of his party's factions and rivalries with some old guard lawmakers who disagree on what is best for the country.

Mr. Koizumi's enemies within his own party have blocked his efforts to revive the Japanese economy. His measures include cutting back on public works spending and allowing some unprofitable companies to fail - steps that are deeply unpopular with some lawmakers because they will alienate their constituents.

Mr. Koizumi recently told voters that there are some bright signs despite the prolonged economic slump. He says he wants the public to know how important it is for the LDP and its coalition partners to revitalize the economy and give Japan stability.

Despite the internal power struggles of the Liberal Democrats and Mr. Koizumi's failure to radically transform the economy thus far, surveys indicate the public believes he has made enough progress toward his goals to deprive the Democratic Party of victory - at least this time.