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Japan close to two-party system

Tokyo, Nov. 10 (Reuters): Japan, dominated by a single conservative party for nearly half a century, took a big stride towards a two-party system in today’s election as the main opposition made big strides and smaller groups floundered.

Big-time losers included the New Conservative Party, the smallest member of the three-party ruling camp, and the Social Democrats — for decades the biggest opposition group but now a disappearing force.

The election pitted Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its two coalition partners mainly against the generally pro-reform Democrats, led by former grass-roots activist Naoto Kan.

Media said the ruling camp hung onto its majority in parliament’s 480-seat Lower House with 275, falling well short of the 287 seats it held before the general election.

The LDP lost the majority it had held on its own, while the Democrats, newly merged with a smaller bloc, won 177 seats, up from 137.

The strong showing by the Democrats is likely to move Japan closer to the true two-party system many voters seem to want. “This is the first time I have come here so early,” said Masanori Ohmori, a 61-year-old retiree who arrived at a polling booth before it had even opened at 7 am.

“I came because I felt this time that I can help bring about a change in leadership,” he added.

The LDP has ruled Japan for most of the past half century by catering to core supporters such as farmers, small businesses and construction firms.

But its traditional support base has eroded. “I usually vote for the LDP, but this time I voted for the Democrats,” said Koichi Kotake, 56, who works for a construction firm and lives in a suburb east of Tokyo.

“I had big expectations for Koizumi, but economic reforms are not working under the LDP, so I voted for change,” he said.

An increasing number of unaffiliated “floating voters” have also grown cool to the LDP, depriving it of a majority in the 1993, 1996 and 2000 elections.

Independent lawmakers joined the LDP after each poll, helping it to obtain a simple majority, but the party lacks a majority in the Upper House and has had to rely on partners to stay in power.

Political analysts said that while Japan was moving closer to a system in which government could alternate between two major parties, it was not there yet. “What this election means is that Japan is developing a German system of two big parties and one smaller party,” said Columbia University Professor Gerald Curtis, referring to the LDP, the Democrats and LDP’s junior partner, the New Komeito.

In another sign of growing support for a two-party system, NHK television said the Democrats did better than the LDP in proportional districts, which are chosen by party and not by a particular candidate.

The Buddhist-backed New Komeito won 34 seats, up from 31 in the previous parliament. The New Conservative Party, a splinter group which had left the opposition to return to government, was hard hit.

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