THE SOUND trucks blaring campaign slogans are silent, the posters are a bit tattered and Japan's long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is still in charge.
Three days after the first general election since popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office in 2001, pundits and voters are pondering what exactly has changed.
Three things, however, seem clear.
First, the LDP is more dependent than ever on its partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, whose 34 seats not only give the ruling bloc a stable majority in the Lower House, but whose support was key to the victory of many individual LDP lawmakers.
Second, Koizumi may be losing his magic touch with voters, but the election has strengthened the premier's base within the LDP at the expense of rivals who tend to oppose his reforms.
Third, Japan has taken a big step towards a two-party system that could end the half-century dominance of the conservative LDP, but the main opposition Democrats still have some way to go before they can convince voters to give them a chance.
Japan could develop a two-party system, but one in which control of the government would not change, wrote veteran American journalist Sam Jameson, who has been covering Japanese politics for four decades, in the Japan Times newspaper.
Who really won?
The Democrats gained 40 seats for a total of 177 in last Sunday's poll but fell short of the 200 target its leaders had set, while the LDP failed to win a majority for the fourth time in a decade.
In an all too familiar pattern, though, by Monday the LDP had grabbed back its majority by luring into the party fold three independents and all the members of its decimated partner, the New Conserva- tives, which now plans to merge with it.
With another six independents likely to join, the LDP was on track for 250 seats in the 480-seat chamber, up by three from before the election.
Still, the LDP's vote-gathering machine built on interest groups like farmers and builders is rusting while its old-style image lacks appeal to many floating voters who shun party ties.
So keeping the New Komeito happy is a harsh necessity, especially with an Upper House poll, in which support from that party will again be critical, looming in eight months.
The Komeito's stance is fairly simple: 'If you force me to give you support for your candidates, what are you going to give me in return?', said University of Tokyo professor Takashi Inoguchi.
Analysts said the New Komeito's influence could be felt in two areas in particular. Many of the party's pacifist supporters are opposed to sending Japanese troops to Iraq, so Koizumi might find it tough to keep his promise to US President George W. Bush to do so unless the security situation there improves.
The New Komeito is also at odds with the LDP on pension reform, a burning issue given Japan's rapidly ageing population.
Inside the LDP, the election also brought change.
Koizumi's critics inside the LDP, which is a mix of reformists and old-style spokesmen for vested interests, kept silent when they hoped his popularity would translate into a decisive win, but have already begun blaming him for the party's poor showing.
They may now step up opposition to his agenda of cutting spending, privatisation and fixing Japan's ailing banks in ways that could hurt their constituency of small, debt-laden firms.
But Koizumi's wiliest old guard opponent, Hiromu Nonaka, has retired while another conservative heavyweight from the party's biggest faction, Kanezo Muraoka, 72, lost his seat.
Overall, LDP blocs supporting Koizumi if not all of his reforms grew in strength while anti-Koizumi factions lost out.
Whether Koizumi is sufficiently empowered to fashion a New LDP with a broader public appeal, however, remains to be seen, since his personal popularity did not ensure a big LDP victory.
Koizumi's coat-tails were very short, said Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia University. I think he was surprised.
The Democrats face a tough challenge of their own.
Their election gains have given them the largest presence of any opposition party in the Lower House since the birth of the so-called 1955 system which pitted the conservative LDP against the Socialists in an ideological battle that lasted for decades.
Voters may also feel more comfortable contemplating change now that the LDP and Democrats are divided more by nuance than deep differences over policy issues. Nonetheless, few are brave enough to predict when a change at the helm might occur.
If things continue, there will be a change in government in the not-too-distant future, said Steven Reed, a Chuo University professor.
That's exactly what I said after the last election. The question is: how many tricks does the LDP have in its bag? Reuters
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