Apathy rules in Japan's poll Cynics rule in Japan's poll

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The Independent Online
Japan's first national elections in two years, and the first to be held under a new ''reformist'' electoral system, are turning into a cynical farce as parties abandon all pretence at policy in a scramble for the votes of an apathetic electorate.

The results of tomorrow's elections to the Upper House of the Diet seem unlikely to have any immediate effect on politics, despite an anticipated defeat for the Social Democrat Party (SDP) of the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama. Mr Murayama, who leads as a minority partner in a three-party coalition, has set the SDP a goal of 22 seats, a seemingly modest one since it allows for the loss of half the party's contested seats. But recent polls suggest he will gain no more than 17 seats, and all week the Prime Minister and his aides have been back-pedalling on suggestions that he will stand down. The latest tactic has been to include independent candidates who are ''recommended'' by the SDP, although several of them are also supported by opposition parties.

On the face of it, the elections were never a cause for much excitement. Only half of the 256 seats are being contested and the Upper House is, in any case, Japan's closest equivalent of the House of Lords; important legislation is enacted and governments formed in the lower chamber.

But the poll has been trailed for months as a vote of confidence in Mr Murayama, who has plummeted in public esteem since he became Prime Minister last June. His alliance with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the small Sakigake Party was seen as a transparently cynical manoeuvre, in which the party shed all its pacifist socialist policies. Since then the government has dithered in the face of disasters such as the Kobe earthquake, the Tokyo gas attack and a crisis in the banks and stock exchange.

The LDP, which held power for 38 years before being ousted by reformist defectors in 1993, has the largest number of seats in both houses, but no majority. It needs Mr Murayama's support, and in any case lacks a strong and galvanising prime ministerial candidate of its own. Its background role in the coalition has allowed it to gain at the Socialists' expense, with the result that that the coalition as a whole may come away from the elections with a larger majority in the Upper House.

''This is an extremely strange game when you consider the principles of democracy,'' Nobuo Noda, Professor of Politics at Kyoto University, said.

''There are many people who object to the LDP-SDP combination but support one of the parties. They have no way to express their opinion. They may dislike the SDP and vote for the LDP, yet they still end up with Murayama as their prime minister.''

Painfully clear from all this is the degree to which the electorate has become alienated from the political process. Fifty of the seats will, for the first time, be elected by proportional representation of candidates from party lists, in an attempt to stem bribery.

However, the new system has caused little excitement. Polls suggest turn- out may be as low as 60 per cent, and half of all voters declare themselves unaligned to any single party.

Electoral managers have stacked the lists with television personalities and prominent women, and all 10 of the country's political parties have issued statements condemning the French resumption of nuclear tests, a popular issue in the 50th anniversary year of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.