IN Japan, prime ministers come and go, but a single party remains in power: the Liberal Democrats (LDP). A political system in which the opposition never has a chance to come out of the wilderness is only half a democracy. There are finally signs that the pattern may be about to change.
When former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was a fledgling member of parliament just after World War II, he plastered his mainly rural constituency with billboards calling for the prime minister to be elected by all the people. After many years, the LDP devised a primary in which ordinary party members could vote for the candidate of their choice. It was a kind of popularity poll, with no binding power on members of parliament, who constitutionally are the only ones who can elect a new prime minister. A couple of elections were held under this system. In the first, in 1978, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of his rival, Masayoshi Ohira. Having promised to abide by the primary results, he had to resign.
But the LDP was never comfortable with popular voting, and soon went back to its previous system of voting restricted to members of parliament and selected representatives from the provinces. That is how Kiichi Miyazawa succeeded Toshiki Kaifu as prime minister last fall.
Japan, like Britain, is a parliamentary democracy: The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in parliament. If opposition parties were stronger, there would be no legal obstacle to their wresting power from the LDP. But the principal opposition party, the Socialists, is an ideological anachronism, and the others appeal only to narrow niches: the Komeito (based on an iconoclastic Buddhist sect), the Democratic Socialists (a moderate offshoot of the Socialists), and the Communists.