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Political landscape suddenly uncertain

(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow's New York Times.)

c.2010 New York Times News Service@

MATSUE, Japan — For decades, political views in this small city in rural western Japan were as placidly predictable as the waters in the medieval moats that crisscross its downtown. A majority of residents steadfastly supported the Liberal Democrats, who governed Japan for most of the past half-century.

But as Japan prepares for midterm parliamentary elections Sunday that will be its first national vote since the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, was unseated in an election last year, the political landscape suddenly seems uncertain.

Sunday's elections cannot directly cause a change in government because they involve seats only in the Upper House and not the more powerful Lower House, which elects the prime minister. Still, the ballot is being widely seen here as a crucial referendum on the nine-month-old government of the Democrats, who have formed only the second non-LDP government since 1955.


Here in Matsue, in rural Shimane Prefecture, many voters said they wanted to give the Democrats more time to fulfill their vaguely left-leaning agenda of building a European-style social welfare state. Others already talk of switching back to the more familiar, though seemingly rudderless, Liberal Democrats. Still others, disgusted with both major parties, have fled to one of several small rightist parties that have recently cropped up.

The fear is that the current election could prove inconclusive, with neither party winning a clear majority in the Upper House, making it difficult for the Democrats, who control the Lower House, to push through their agenda. Political experts said this could bring weak coalition governments and possibly a return to the political paralysis of the final years of LDP rule.

That could eventually lead to a redrawing of political lines into more ideologically coherent parties, say the experts, perhaps eventually producing a more competitive and responsive political system. But in the meantime, Japan's huge and growing problems, like its aging society and ballooning national debt, would be left to fester.

Polls show the LDP has made only limited gains, at best. Political experts describe the party as stuck in its old ways, unable to find fresh faces. Indeed, the party that has benefited the most from the Democrats' woes has been one of the small, new conservative parties, the Your Party, set up by defectors from the LDP It is still running a distant third in opinion polls, as its calls for small government have appealed to mainly urban, white collar voters.

"It is easy to be pessimistic about the future with the LDP and the Democrats," said Masakazu Tanimoto, 43, an employee at a retirement home who said he had switched from the LDP to Your Party. "Japanese politics needs new blood."

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