LDP's decline leaves voters in a quandary: The Japanese remain suspicious of a divided opposition

'NONE of us knows what to do,' said Michiko Taniguchi, a middle-aged woman who lives in central Tokyo and has regular coffee-shop sessions with a group of like-minded matrons. 'It is very confusing: which of these politicians do we believe?'

Confusion has suddenly become a way of life in Japan. How else can it be explained that 61 per cent of respondents in an opinion poll this week supported the parliamentary revolt against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last Friday, but 62 per cent wanted to see the LDP returned as part of the next government? Do the Japanese want political reform or not?

The answer seems to be a resounding 'yes and no'. Or, as Ms Taniguchi put it, 'yes, but can we trust the reformers?' As long as the indecision lingers, the LDP will benefit. Fifty-five LDP members abandoned the party in a no-confidence vote last week, forcing the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, to call elections which could mark the end of 38 years of LDP rule. But so far opposition parties are still disunited, and the LDP is doing its best to highlight the divisions.

Recognising that splits in the opposition are a godsend to the LDP, some members of the new Shinsei (Renaissance) party have begun informal talks with other parties to co-ordinate which constituencies their respective candidates should stand in. Shinsei was established on Wednesday by 44 former LDP members who led the anti-government revolt. Meanwhile, Akira Yamagishi, the head of Japan's main trade union federation, Rengo, yesterday called for a congress of all opposition parties to co-ordinate policy before the elections on 18 July.

Stereotypes are often unfair, but one characteristic that applies almost across the board to Japanese is a profound discomfort with decision making. It is almost culturally rude to commit oneself to one view when there may be people in the group who favour another option. Seeking consensus is the key.

But now, for the first time in four decades, Ms Taniguchi and her fellow voters are being asked to make a real decision over the country's future. The euphoria of the initial anti-government revolt is wearing off and Japanese are going through various degrees of paralysis, inertia, disorientation and post-traumatic shock.

Eighty per cent of voters believe politicians of all stripes are untrustworthy. With the string of corruption and bribery scandals, everyone knew something had to give. But in another poll, taken after the dissolution of the Diet last week, 68 per cent of respondents said they had not expected any political reform measures to be implemented anyway. Despite Mr Miyazawa's low popularity rating - 9 per cent - and that of his cabinet - 10.4 per cent - will it translate into a huge swing against the LDP on polling day?

Politics in Ms Taniguchi's Japan has been simple up to now. Voters supported the LDP because it was the only party that could be trusted to manage Japan's economic development. Even if annoyed enough over some local issue to vote for the opposition in protest, voters knew that enough other people would vote for the LDP to ensure that the protest vote would be heard without rocking the boat.

No longer. For the first time the LDP's rule is threatened. For years Japanese academics and even coffee-shop analysts like Ms Taniguchi have said nothing will change in Japan unless there is a credible alternative to the LDP. Now there is, and she and her friends are terrified.

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