The election for the lower house of parliament tomorrow is the most decisive in Japan since 1955, when the Liberal Democratic Party began an unbroken 38 years of one-party government. Whether that era has ended, is perpetuated or is starting to crack will be decided.
The LDP is intertwined not only with big business, the bureaucracy, gangsterism and corruption but also with Japan's unparalleled economic growth and personal economic security of the past 38 years. How to throw out the bath water while saving the baby is the Japanese voters' dilemma, and the parties have not made it easy.
The overthrow of the LDP seemed imminent after its own defectors insured a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa last month. The prime minister had promised an election reform law but the LDP faction bosses made a liar of him. The polls were suggesting an LDP loss, until the Tokyo summit of the Group of Seven industrialized powers. Mr. Miyazawa's skilled handling of President Clinton and apparent agreement on trade, however illusory, reminded the Japanese voters why the LDP has seemed indispensable.
The only party losing more ground than the government is the main opposition, the Socialist Party, which faces drastic losses of seats. Socialism is not what reformers seek.
The apparent gainers are three new parties, two formed virtually overnight to capitalize on the voters' mood. Their leaders are LDP defectors crusading against corrupt relationships and the old politics of which they had been practitioners. They are the mirror image of the born-again anti-Communists so prevalent in the former Soviet bloc.
Analysts predict the LDP will win 220 of the 511 seats, not enough for a government but clearly the biggest party. The newcomers with such names as Japan New Party, Renewal Party and New Party Harbinger are hoping for 100 or more seats, even 150.
Possible outcomes include a minority LDP government, a coalition led by the LDP or a coalition led by one of the new party leaders. Time will tell the difference between the new parties outside the LDP and the old factions within it. The basic system is unlikely to be overthrown overnight, though the cracks in its foundation are widening.