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Japanese Skeptical of PM Candidates

July 23, 1998

KAWASAKI, Japan (AP) _ Yasuko Okumura is full of fears _ that Japan’s sour economy will ruin her husband’s business, that her pension fund will go bust, that her little girl’s future will be burdened by worries.

But as the three ruling-party candidates to succeed resigning Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto blitz the media with promises to lift Japan out of its worst economic slump in decades, Okumura just shrugs.

``It won’t make any difference who gets elected, because factional politics will win out,″ the 30-year-old housewife said while her toddler daughter played in a park in Kawasaki, a gritty blue-collar factory city just south of Tokyo.

Popular discontent is weighing heavily on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as members prepare to vote Friday for a new party president _ and most likely Japan’s next prime minister, since the party controls the powerful lower house of Parliament.

Anger at the government and worry over the economy in urban areas like Kawasaki are at the center of Japan’s political turmoil: They triggered the losses in the July 12 upper house elections that brought down Hashimoto’s government _ losses suffered most devastatingly in the cities.

That disillusionment also could mean deeper troubles down the road for the LDP, especially as politicians are slowly forced to wean themselves from backroom politicking and appeal more directly to voters.

``The successor to the Hashimoto administration should know that he will be severely punished by voters in the next lower house election if he fails,″ the Yomiuri newspaper said in an editorial this week.

The choice on Friday is in the hands of 413 LDP members. The winner will then go before the Parliament sometime late next week for a vote for prime minister.

But the LDP’s poor showing at the polls prompted a group of younger party dissidents to push for an open campaign, forcing candidates to bypass backroom brokering and debate their ideas in the open, in the hope that the change would win back some public support.

Not everyone is convinced.

``I think the LDP election could determine Japan’s new direction,″ said 28-year-old office worker Toshiyuki Inoue. ``But I’m not expecting anything good to come out of it.″

This isn’t the first time anger at the LDP has boiled over. The party was swept from power by reformist parties in elections in 1993, though the LDP later recaptured the premiership when Hashimoto took office in 1996.

But unlike the widespread euphoria of those days, the current mood seems to be one of helplessness. The sour economy has darkened the atmosphere, with bankruptcies mounting and unemployment at a record high.

``The people’s voice can’t be heard,″ Okumura said. ``It would be better if we could vote for the leader directly like in the United States.″

Despite the talk of change, the party doesn’t seem to be moving any closer to mirroring the public’s wishes.

While opinion polls have put maverick Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi as the favorite, surveys inside the party show old-guard favorite Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi as the front-runner.

Some voters said the emergence of Obuchi as the leader demonstrates a cynical disregard for the message voters sent out on July 12.

``Koizumi is the most likely to take direct action _ and he resembles one of my close friends,″ said 25-year-old Yuichi Maruyama, a telephone equipment salesman. ``The old guys should all get out.″

Still, folks interviewed in Kawasaki predicted Koizumi, who has controversially espoused privatizing Japan’s powerful postal system, would be too radical a choice for LDP leaders to stomach.

And they said, for now, there’s little sense in relying on the government to lead Japan out of its dark economic tunnel.

``The future’s uncertain, but we’ll just have to make do by ourselves,″ Okumura said. ``We can’t expect anything from politicians.″

Maruyama echoed her view.

``If I lose my job, I’ll just have to find part-time work,″ he said. ``Or I could go abroad.″

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