The Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan nearly continuously for half a century, appears headed for another victory in Sunday's general election -- a big one, if polls are correct.
And this will delay, again, the start of a new political era in which power is transferred regularly from one party to another, as it is in other democracies.
Japan's democracy is East Asia's oldest, but its ruling party has held power almost as long as the Communist parties in China and North Korea. Younger democracies in South Korea and Taiwan have already experienced changes in ruling parties, and the underpinnings of democracies, from vibrant civil societies to strong, independent media, appear to be flourishing there more than they are here.
Since calling an early election last month, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has shrewdly refashioned the image of the Liberal Democrats into the party of reform by fielding telegenic women as candidates and painting opponents of his signature postal privatization bill as reactionaries. The main opposition Democratic Party, whose gains in recent years now face erosion, has looked on helplessly.
In the past, when issues were rarely raised in campaigns, politicians ran simply by promising favors to supporters, said Masayasu Kitagawa, a former Liberal Democratic lawmaker, independent governor of Mie prefecture and now a professor at Waseda University.
"The relationship was that of patron and client," Kitagawa said. "This was not actually democracy, but rather the opposite of democracy."
To encourage political accountability and voter awareness, Kitagawa has been the leading proponent of election "manifestos" detailing parties' agendas. The word and concept was little understood in the general election two years ago, but it has taken root this time, with both main parties proffering their manifestos.
"I'd be satisfied if the introduction of manifestos made Japanese realize that what they had believed to be democracy was an illusion," he said.
The illusion was formed in 1955 with the foundation of the Liberal Democratic Party, which focused single-mindedly on turning Japan into an economic power. With strong support from the US and the powerful bureaucracy, as well as effective pork-barrel politics, the party's grip on power went unshaken for decades.
Internal factions vied for power, but decisions were made and some prime ministers even chosen in backroom deals. Because of the Cold War and Japan's military dependence on the US, the longtime opposition, the Socialists, were never taken seriously.
Voters feared that "the friendly Japan-US relationship would be destroyed and Japan would become poor once more if the LDP government collapsed and the Socialists came to power," said Eiji Oguma, an associate professor of policy management at Keio University.
A split inside the party led to a 10-month ouster from power in 1993. During that brief period, however, a coalition of minor parties pushed through far-reaching reforms -- including changing multi-seat districts into single-seat ones -- that would eventually weaken the dominance of the Liberal Democrats.
The present main opposition Democratic Party, which was formed in 1998, has been gaining voters in recent years, especially in urban areas. But the half-century rule by a single party has stunted the growth of Japanese democracy, experts say, and its effects are still being felt today.
Civil society remains weak. Although private organizations focusing on welfare and international aid have mushroomed in recent years, those delving into delicate issues, such as human rights, freedom of information and the workings of government, wield little influence. Ordinary Japanese feel little personal connection with their country's democracy, said Yukiko Miki, executive director of Information Clearinghouse Japan, a private group that fights to gain access to government-held information.
"Japanese citizens are ultimate free riders," Miki said. "Support from citizens is necessary to form a base for democracy, but Japanese people don't seem to feel they are the ones who should support civil society."
The Liberal Democrats' grip on power has also limited the dissemination of information. For instance, the Internet has raised interest in elections elsewhere and was widely credited with helping propel South Korea's president, Roh Moo-hyun, to power two years ago. But here in one of the world's most wired countries, election law bars Web sites from promoting candidates for a specific election and candidates from renewing their home pages during the 12-day campaign period.
The Liberal Democrats have maintained the restrictions because their core supporters tend to be older and are not likely to be heavy Internet users; the Democratic Party, whose supporters tend to be younger, has lobbied unsuccessfully to change the law.
Yoshito Hori, an entrepreneur, recently created the YES! Project, a Web site that encourages young Japanese to vote and discuss politics. "By using the internet, you can reach people in their 20s to their early 40s, people who were uninterested in politics," said Hori, who added that the law will most likely change now that the Liberal Democrats are hoping to attract young voters.
With no history of power alternation, the mass media tend to stick to the Liberal Democratic Party's line. In this election, the press has ignored issues like Koizumi's policy toward Asian countries or his deployment of troops to Iraq that would likely hurt the party at the ballot box. The opposition Democratic Party has said it would withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq and repair relations with its Asian neighbors. Since April last year, no major Japanese news organization has sent a journalist to cover the Japanese troops in Samawa, in southern Iraq.
"If the major media had reported about the Self-Defense Forces properly, I wouldn't have gone there," said Takeharu Watai, a freelance journalist who recently returned from his fifth trip to Samawa. "If I didn't report at least part of the story, the government could say whatever it wants."
Just as these pillars of Japanese democracy tend to be tenuous, experts doubt the soundness of the main Democratic Party opposition. The party, made up of former Liberal Democrats, Socialists and other groups, famously lacks unity and could disintegrate if it loses badly.
But Park Cheol-hee, an expert in Japanese politics at Seoul National University, said that a more mature democracy is set to emerge here.
"This is the last stage of one-party rule," Park said. "I don't think the LDP will rule for another 50 years -- possibly another five or 10. The Democratic Party might fail this time, but they will try again. This will eventually produce a competitive, two-party system and lead Japan to a true democracy."
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