Japan's election hit by apathy

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The Independent Online
ELECTIONS TO Japan's house of councillors usually pass by without much notice from the world, but the campaign which kicks off with rallies in Tokyo this morning is an exception.

These are exceptional times in Japan which, after seven years of stagnation, finds itself on the brink of its worst recession since the Second World War.

The country's upper house wields about the same power as Britain's House of Lords and - although all are elected - its members have a similar credibility problem. There are serious and concerned politicians in the upper house, but their numbers are diluted by a mixed bag of ageing actors, retired sportsmen, comedians and other celebrity publicity-seekers.

Whatever the broader economic causes, the crisis also represents a huge political mess. In the upper house elections, voters will have their chance to express their anger with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and their prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto.

At first glance, Mr Hashimoto would appear to be dead in the water and in any other industrialised democracy his days would surely be numbered. A year ago, things looked bad for the prime minister when the support rating for his cabinet stood at 45 per cent. But this month it slumped to 30 per cent.

Along with the official announcement of the onset of recession, unemployment has risen to more than 4 per cent.

Earlier this year, Norio Ohga, the head of Sony and one of the country's most famous businessmen, publicly compared Mr Hashimoto to Herbert Hoover, the American president who ushered in the Great Depression.

Last week, the American Treasury had to prop up the Japanese yen, and one of Japan's biggest banks, LTCB, is on the verge of throwing in the towel.

Mr Hashimoto's personal popularity lags behind that of both the leading opposition leaders: Naoto Kan, of the Democratic Party, a youthful reformer who likes to compare himself to Tony Blair; and Takako Doi, of the Social Democrats, Japan's most famous female politician.

But, in apparent defiance of all known political principles, Mr Hashimoto's position is secure. The other week, the LDP romped home in a by-election. In the elections on 12 July it has a chance of recapturing its lost majority in the upper house.

The depressing reasons for this explain much about the state of Japan: quite simply, for all his faults, Mr Hashimoto is the best of a dismal lot. Despite their personal popularity, neither Mr Kan nor Mrs Doi have the party support to translate their individual appeal into votes.

The Social Democrats, formerly known as the Socialists, lost their credibility when they sold out their left-wing principles to form a coalition with the ruling LDP in 1994.

The Democratic Party is a messy agglomeration of refugees from other parties, with a nice logo, but without a coherent ideology. The former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, cruelly but accurately referred to it as "soft ice cream" - fluffy and appealing, but liable to melt in the heat.

Even within his own party the prime minister has few challengers. This is partly because no ambitious LDP politician wants the job of clearing up Mr Hashimoto's mess. Potential successors include the party's secretary- general, Koichi Kato, an ambitious and talented former diplomat; as well as the foreign minister, Keizo Obuchi, and the welfare minster, Junichiro Koizumi.

But the old factional hierarchies of the LDP, which virtually guaranteed a change of prime minister every few years, as leading politicians took their turn, have become blurred - even the LDP is undergoing something of an identity crisis.

The most depressing reason for Mr Hashimoto's survival is also the most basic: for all their economic troubles and for all his hesitancy and incompetence, Japanese voters have reacted not with anger but with despair.

Polls suggest that next month's election will have a record low turn- out, as low as 40 per cent. This favours the LDP, whose well-organised local branches can be relied upon to bring out the loyalists.

The rest of the country is largely apathetic - conscious of the economic catastrophe bearing down upon it, but unwilling or unable to do anything to change its leaders.