Japanese unmoved by election games

LDP set to reassert its sterile grip on power as hopes of new era fade

Following Japanese politics is a bit like watching an obscure foreign sport - sumo wrestling, say, or Australian Rules Football. On first viewing, it is incomprehensible but after a few sessions, patterns emerge and rules come in to focus. Over time you recognise key players and find a team to support and fellow aficionados who share your enthusiasm. But to most of the people you meet in the real world, your hobby has no interest whatsoever.

So it is in Tokyo at the moment. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, made what should have been an announcement of great significance. The Diet (parliament) of Japan, which is economically the second most powerful country in the world, was dissolved in preparation for a general election which will almost certainly take place on 20 October.

Politicians and journalists have been scrutinising the tea leaves for weeks in anticipation of the announcement. But in the real world, it caused little stir. For the elections will be a game played among Japanese politicians, of minimal interest to their own people, and with no significant bearing on the problems confronting the country, or to its relations with the rest of the world.

The next Prime Minister, assuming it is not Mr Hashimoto, will be Japan's fifth in three-and-a-half years. During the same period, Japan has faced a major earthquake and terrorist attack, seen huge anti-American demonstrations in Okinawa, and made a slow economic recovery. If this suggests instability, however, it is misleading. Japan's political culture has remained closed, monolithic and unresponsive.

It was not meant to be this way. After the last election, in July 1993, Japan appeared to be entering a new era. The Liberal Democrat Party, in power since 1955, lost its majority after reform-minded defectors formed a cluster of new parties.

The coalition which they formed promised to reform the electoral system, open up the economy, and break the bureaucrats' grip on power. The first goal was narrowly achieved, but the coalition quickly fell apart, to be eventually replaced by a bizarre alliance between the LDP and its former foes, the Socialists.

Before Mr Hashimoto, the coalition was lead by the feeble Tomiichi Murayama, a lifelong Socialist and, until his absorption into the unholy alliance, a pacifist. Apart from certain differences in style, the two prime ministers pursued similar policies on security (close ties with the United States), economics (a nominal "liberalisation" of markets), and the bureaucracy (reform, but not yet). In fact, it would be hard to find any politician who would not support these vague aims.

The interest in the election is not policy debate but a few strong personalities, and the parties gathering around them in the hope of achieving power.

The LDP has a well-oiled election machine and in Mr Hashimoto a leader who is impressive in public and reassuring to his backbenchers.

Credible opposition is divided between Shinshinto (New Frontier Party), the second biggest party, and Minshuto, which will be formally inaugurated today.

Tension among the politicians has been generated by the new voting system, which combines a first-past-the-post system with proportional representation.

The outcome of the elections is likely to be another coalition between the LDP and either Minshuto or Shinshinto. But, apart from the participants, it will be difficult to find anyone who really cares.

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