TOKYO -- As sound trucks roam the streets and posters
accost pedestrians with gleaming images of eager candidates, the central figure in elections set for tomorrow is not even on the ballots.
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama may not be formally competing -- voters will choose only members of Parliament's upper chamber -- but a poor showing for his Socialist Party could force his resignation. And that, in turn, could lead to the collapse of the governing coalition of three political parties, and then a political realignment.
Partly because such a future would be so uncertain, politicians ,, are trying to avoid it. Most guess that Mr. Murayama will be able to hold on to his job for now, but voters seem so irritable that no one rules out the possibility of huge surprises.
As the campaign proceeds, there seems to be very little discussion of issues. Among the existing political parties, the Communist Party is just about the only one that clearly stands for something.
Perhaps as a result, voters seem uninspired by the parties or by the political system as a whole. Nearly half of voters say in opinion polls that they do not support any party.
Parties are responding by recruiting actors, television personalities, athletes and other celebrities to be party candidates.
Mr. Murayama is emphasizing the success of all three coalition parties as a criterion for success in the election for half of the chamber's 252 members. This is because his own party is likely to do poorly, while the others in the coalition may do better.
Mr. Murayama is widely admired as a nice and honest grandfatherly figure, decent and unpretentious. But he is also widely scorned as ineffective.
Japanese party leaders are expected to resign to take responsibility for poor election showings, so Mr. Murayama is shrewdly trying to define a poor showing as one for the coalition rather than his own party.
Even so, the magic level for the Socialist Party may be about 15 seats. There is widespread speculation that if the Socialists win fewer than that, Mr. Murayama would have to resign.
A resignation would set off a power struggle and various efforts to form a new ruling coalition. It could also lead to the collapse of the Socialist Party and prompt the larger political parties to split and form new organizations.
All this might hasten the emergence of something closer to a two-party political system based on clear political differences. The existing system, in contrast, operates with an array of parties reluctant to take distinct political positions.
"There is no doubt that this election will accelerate the process of drastic change in the political scene," said Takao Toshikawa, publisher of Tokyo Inside Line newsletter.
Tomorrow's vote will be the first since the collapse of the system two years ago under which the Liberal Democratic Party had ruled Japan for nearly four decades. It will also be a test of the public mood before general elections for the more important lower chamber of Parliament, expected by next spring.