Japan's voters set to endorse political change

TOKYO - Japan's politicians today conduct their final round of campaign speeches before general elections tomorrow that are expected to change the country's political landscape, writes Terry McCarthy. Four weeks after parliament was dissolved following a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, three new opposition parties have emerged, politicians of all stripes have had the word 'change' on their lips, and the momentum towards a fundamental political realignment has become unstoppable.

A total of 955 candidates will contest 511 seats in the Lower House, or Diet. For the first time since it was formed in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is set to lose its absolute majority in the Lower House, ending a political order which has served the Japanese people well during the period of economic reconstruction and simultaneous confrontation with Communism.

Opinion polls showed the LDP's popularity at 18 per cent, followed by two of the new opposition parties, the Japan New Party at 11.2 per cent, and the Shinsei party at 8.7 per cent. The Socialists, the main opposition until now, have languished at 6.6 per cent. The LDP is expected to emerge as the single largest party, but will need to attract a coalition partner to form a government. The price of this is likely to be electoral reform, which in turn will spark another election in the near future.

As candidates toured the country, white-gloved to symbolise their 'purity', giving speeches from the top of vans with powerful amplifiers until they went hoarse, the issue that most agreed upon was that it was time for Japan to break up the infamous 'steel triangle' of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who have run the country over the past four decades.

This steel triangle, welded together by informal personal relationships and favours, has built a Japan which is a formidable economic machine, but is fundamentally inimical to ordinary consumers. The triangle has also become overly rigid, unable to flex itself to keep up with international and domestic change.

But very few alternative visions have been put forward during the campaigning, suggesting that it will take some time for Japan to find a new power structure. In the short term, voters appear confused about their politicians: one poll this week showed 43 per cent of potential voters still did not know which party they would vote for.

(Photograph omitted)