Japenese Election: Catch 22 bedevils an electoral system ripe for reform: The ruling LDP has been left behind by the times. Now a new generation is seizing the chance for change, writes Terry McCarthy from Tokyo

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MORE than 900 candidates spread out across Japan yesterday as they began two weeks of campaigning for general elections on 18 July. By the end of the fortnight every mountain village, suburban housing estate, rice-growing valley and city ward will have been exposed to the competing messages of different parties and different factions within the parties. And billions of yen will have been spent, writes Terry McCarthy.

Ironically the system of electioneering that is gearing up to elect a new parliament is itself under attack, and was one of the reasons why the last government fell. The electoral system, say its critics, is largely responsible for the money politics, single-party domination and the almost total lack of any real political debate that has plagued Japan for years. Changing it has become one of the main components of the much-debated 'political reform' drive.

There have been repeated calls for electoral reform since the Lockheed bribery scandal in 1976. But since the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been the main beneficiary of the system, and the system has prevented any other party from challenging the LDP in a neat Catch 22 situation, there has never been any serious attempt to institute change. But now the party may be over, as the LDP has split and its new challenger, the Shinsei party of Tsutomu Hata and Ichiro Ozawa, has said its priority is to change the electoral system.

Japan is divided into 129 constituencies, each of which has three, four or five seats in the Lower House of the Diet (parliament), depending on its size. Ballot papers list the candidates' names and party affiliations. Each voter can only vote for one name on the ballot paper. In a five-seat constituency, for example, the five candidates with the most votes are elected. There are 511 seats in the Lower House.

The problem starts with simple arithmetic. To get a majority in the Diet, a party needs at least 256 seats. This means it must win two seats in nearly every constituency. Because there is no proportional representation, candidates from the same party are unavoidably forced to campaign against each other - if one LDP candidate won 96 per cent of the vote and four opposition parties each won 1 per cent of the vote in a constituency, the LDP would still only win one seat in the Diet.

In practice what has happened is that the LDP, which is the biggest party and has not lost an election since 1955, has run multiple candidates in each constituency. Usually they are from rival factions within the LDP - there are six main factions within the party at the moment. They compete furiously for seats - the more seats a faction controls, the more lobbying power it has to gain ministerial posts.

But because these rival candidates are all from the same party, they cannot campaign on policy issues: the only thing that can divide them is their local charisma and the amount of money they can bring into the area. Meanwhile the smaller, and poorer, opposition parties have avoided running more than one candidate in constituencies for fear of splitting their vote and not winning any seat at all.

Another twist of the system is the disproportionate power it gives to the rural vote. Because the constituency system has not been updated at the same pace as people have been moving from the countryside to the industrialised cities, some rural constituencies have only one third of the population of urban constituencies, and yet they both elect the same number of representatives to the Diet. The LDP is well aware of the benefit of the farmers' vote and has refused to lift Japan's ban on rice imports.

This electoral system goes back to 1925, and was drawn up by bureaucrats with the intention of keeping politicians at each other's throats and thus less able to wield power. 'Japanese politics is run by a coalition of factions,' said Akihiko Tanaka, an associate professor of international politics at Tokyo University. 'This means each group has a veto over everything - it is like a reduction to the lowest common denominator. This is a victory of the bureaucrats.'

It is this political paralysis and the bureaucrats' stranglehold on policy decisions that Mr Ozawa has vowed to break. His ultimate vision is of a Japan where the politicians have a stronger role in shaping policy and can respond more decisively to Japan's changing international circumstances. He makes no secret of his impatience with the obfuscation of the country's civil servants.

Alternative electoral models have been proposed, but the one that seems most acceptable to all the parties would be a combination of single-seat constituencies with some form of proportional representation. In theory this should do away with the expensive intra-party factional battles, while still giving a chance to the smaller parties to win some seats.

Without electoral reform, there can be no political reform in Japan. But here again there is another Catch 22. It has to do with money. Mr Hata admitted as much when he was forming his so-called 'Renewal' party: 'Frankly speaking, because we still have to fight in the system we want to abolish, each of us has to struggle for financing.'