Clamour for change fades in Japan poll: LDP plays 'stability' card to win back disenchanted voters

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The Independent Online
NATSUKO MATSUDA is brimming with frustration. 'It is disgusting. Those corrupt old people are going to get back in again,' she says, after opinion polls released yesterday show the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stands a good chance of forming the next government after Sunday's elections. 'Even if there is confusion, there should be change,' she said. 'It is time.'

Ms Matsuda is in her early thirties, has a good job with a foreign bank in Tokyo, has spent several years overseas working with a United Nations agency, and is impatient for change in Japan. Now the euphoria surrounding the government's defeat in a no-confidence motion four weeks ago has worn off, and opinion polls are indicating that although voters' attitudes are changing, the change is gradual - as is the Japanese way. Ms Matsuda should know her country better.

According to yesterday's polls, the LDP, with its main campaign message of stability, is likely to hold on to most of the 227 seats it now holds in the Diet. This will leave it short of the 256 needed for a majority in the 511- seat Lower House, but will make it the single largest party by far, and in the strongest position to form a coalition government.

The series of polls, which appeared in the four main daily newspapers, also predicted a disastrous showing for the Socialists, who could lose half of their 134 seats. The Socialists have been the main opposition party up to now, but are losing support as new conservative parties with more realistic policies have been established.

So what of Ms Matsuda, the salaried, urban consumer? She does not like the LDP's idea of stability. She has a long list of complaints. She wonders whether anyone is listening. 'Why are foreign goods still so expensive with the strong yen? Why, if there are so many empty apartments, is rent still so high? Why are taxes so high - is it just to pay farmers and fishermen? Why does no one represent the interests of the ordinary working man or woman? I am not just sitting around, I am working hard. I want to be represented.'

In one obvious sense, Ms Matsuda is not properly represented: the disparity in constituency sizes has long favoured rural voters over their urban counterparts. In this election, the greatest difference is between the Number Three constituency in Ehime, on the small island of Shikoku in southern Japan, and the Number Seven constituency in Tokyo. In Ehime there are 112,862 voters for each seat to be elected. In Tokyo 7 there are 320,027 per seat - almost three times as many.

But Ms Matsuda could also draw some consolation from yesterday's polls, as they showed all three new conservative parties likely to do well in the elections. These three parties have all pledged to do more for the urban salaried worker, including a reform of the electoral system to make their votes carry as much weight as those of rural constituencies.

The Shinsei (Renewal) party of Tsutomu Hata, who led the mutiny within the LDP against the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, is predicted to get more than 50 seats, up from 35 when the Diet was dissolved. The Japan New Party is likely to get more than 30 seats in what will be its first national election test. And another LDP splinter party, the Sakigake (Pioneer) party, is likely to win more than 10 seats. All opposition parties together are estimated to win between 276 to 296 seats - and could still form an anti-LDP coalition if policy differences are ruled out.

OKUSHIRI (Reuter) - The death- toll following Japan's strongest earthquake in 25 years reached 102 yesterday, and 91 people were still missing. Monday's quake unleashed a chain of tidal waves and fires across Okushiri. Police said 300 houses had been burnt down and 284 had collapsed; floods had swamped nearly 200 homes.