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Taxes, Women, Scandal Dominate Japanese Election

February 12, 1990

SAPPORO, Japan (AP) _ Socialist candidate Hideko Ito, in her bright red signature clothes, cuts a bold streak across the vast snowfields of northern Japan.

Running for the powerful lower house of Parliament, Ms. Ito is blazing a new political trail with a mixture of fresh ideas and traditional values, hoping to attract votes away from the scandal-wracked, male-dominated Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for 34 years.

″I want to change the many years of money politics created by Liberal Democratic control,″ she declares from atop her campaign van. ″They have not created a government that serves ordinary people like you and me.″

″Hideko Ito - mother and lawyer. She’ll do her best,″ is the repetitive refrain blared from Ms. Ito’s van as it barrels through the icy streets of Sapporo, a city of 1.6 million on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.

With the ruling party at a turning point - damaged by almost two years of scandals and unpopular tax and farm policies - voters have a difficult choice: politics as usual or the uncertainty of a multiparty coalition led by the Socialists, the largest opposition group.

Ousting the pro-business, conservative Liberal Democrats could signal more difficult trade relations with the United States. Political uncertainty has already bred instability in stock and currency markets in Japan and elsewhere in the world.

The Socialist Party, seeking wider appeal, watered down its longstanding opposition to the Japan-U.S. security treaty, under which U.S. troops are based in Japan. But it is clear that a leftist-led coalition government would mean a reordering of Tokyo’s relations with Washington.

About 90 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s election.

Most analysts predict the Liberal Democrats will retain a simple majority of 257 seats in the 512-seat lower house. But a big drop from their current 295 seats could create a significant realignment of power.

Polls show many voters are undecided, making the last week of campaigning even more crucial.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the leading economic daily, reported Friday that a telephone poll of 10,000 people showed 32.4 percent were undecided, while 34.1 percent said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats, 20.9 percent for the Socialists and the remainder for other parties. No margin of error was given.

Now that the Recruit Co. influence-peddling scandal and the sex scandal that helped drive two prime ministers from office last year are out of the spotlight, public anger has subsided, political analysts say. But two Liberal Democrats who are on trial for bribery for their roles in the Recruit affair are seeking re-election, reviving memories of the scandal.

The Liberal Democrats are attempting to cleanse the stain of scandal with pledges of honest politics, and to dilute the Socialists’ popularity with declarations that a more leftist government would be bad for Japan.

The Socialists’ main theme is to abolish a 3 percent sales tax the Liberal Democrats rammed through Parliament. The Liberal Democrats also have been hurt by making trade concessions to the United States on agricultural imports. The Socialists promise a more protectionist farm trade policy.

One of Ms. Ito’s Liberal Democratic opponents, incumbent Shizuo Sato, 48, is just as active as she is, popping up at countless Lunar New Year festivities in Sapporo and visiting the city’s Snow Festival, a weeklong show of ice sculptures that draws more than 1 million visitors from throughout the world.

″Now is the time for honest and courageous politics,″ Sato’s campaign motto says.

″Many people are against the (sales) tax and many distrust my party,″ the Liberal Democrat tells about 40 workers at a small construction company. ″I understand their distrust, but if the party loses its majority it will be a disaster.″

Sato appears to be in danger of losing his seat, one of three held by the Liberal Democrats in the Sapporo constituency. Despite a well-cultivated image as an internationalist - his campaign brochures feature pictures of him with Henry Kissinger and President Bush - he is suffering from his party’s image among the relatively progressive voters in Japan’s fastest-growing city.

Ms. Ito is expected to be a top vote-getter, though she is a first-time candidate with no experience in government.

She is riding a wave of blossoming support for female candidates - dubbed ″Madonnas″ because of the departure they represent from postwar politics, an all-male enclave of pork-barreling and backroom deals.

In a profile of Ms. Ito on national television, the 46-year-old lawyer was heralded for studying for law exams while nursing one of her three children. She was dubbed the ″red Madonna of the snow-white cities of Hokkaido.″

″I think women in politics is a good thing,″ says Keiko Sato, a woman working in a convenience store. ″It’s important to have the views of women in politics.″

The Liberal Democrats will suffer if that view is widespread, since the conservative party has no women representatives in the lower house and is backing no female candidates. The Socialists, led by Takako Doi, the first female party head ever in Japan, are backing eight women.

Nationwide, only 66 of the 953 candidates are women.

Last July, women voters and candidates made a strong impact in the election for the less-powerful upper house of Parliament, costing the Liberal Democrats their majority in that chamber.

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