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Japan Opposition Weak in Power

June 22, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ Standing atop his campaign van with a microphone in his hand, Yoshio Tezuka embodies what many say Japan needs as it enters the 21st century _ youth, vigor and a willingness to change with the times.

Still, the odds are set firmly against the 33-year-old candidate in Japan’s elections Sunday for Parliament’s lower house.

Tezuka is part of the nation’s struggling opposition, a motley crew ranging from communists to conservatives waging an uphill battle against a risk-averse electorate and a political system that favors the establishment over young upstarts.

Despite the woes of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, such as Japan’s weak economy and an unpopular prime minister, the opposition has failed to formulate attractive alternatives to the pro-business, big-spending policies of the LDP.

``I think we need a new government, but the parties don’t tell us clearly what they are going to do,″ said voter Miyoko Kurumaya, 56, a vendor of traditional Japanese sweets in Tokyo.

There’s been little opportunity to judge how an alternative government would work. In 45 years, Japan’s opposition only once managed to completely wrench power from the conservative LDP, and that administration lasted less than a year.

Power is unlikely to change hands in Sunday’s vote, according to polls.

The latest newspaper surveys predict the LDP, which now rules with a comfortable majority padded by a coalition with two other parties, will win between 241 _ a simple majority _ and 263 seats in the 480-seat lower house.

Serious issues are at stake: Japan’s beleaguered economy is growing but remains precarious. Government spending has inflated the deficit. Unemployment is high, and a graying society frets about how it will support its elders in the future.

Backroom dealings by the LDP to replace Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi after he suffered a stroke in April, followed by the frequent gaffes of his successor Yoshiro Mori, have damaged the old guard’s reputation, with particular discontent among young and urban voters.

But even the disgruntled say Japan’s fragmented opposition fails to inspire. For many, it leaves little impression other than that of a mixed lot united only in its goal of ousting the ruling party.

Japan’s opposition comprises six parties. The largest, the Japan Democratic Party, was formed in 1998 and consists of splinter groups from defunct political parties, whose members include conservative hawks and left-leaning liberals.

Then there are the Japan Communist Party, the tiny Reformers’ Network Party, and the Liberal Party, a conservative group known mainly for its leadership by political maverick Ichiro Ozawa, who bolted from the LDP in 1993. The other two are the Jiyu-Rengo and the Social Democratic Party.

In the latest election, the alternatives haven’t always excelled at wooing voters. The Democratic Party, for example, has focused on lambasting the huge deficit formed under the LDP and proposed reining it in _ with a tax increase.

Some say that was a mistake.

``It was brave of the Democrats to come up with their plan to raise taxes,″ political analyst Hisayuki Miyake said. ``But the LDP is in a better position because it says it won’t.″

The LDP has other things going for it. The government’s fiscal spending spree to boost the economy will help the party in rural areas, where it dominates by delivering extensive public works projects that bring business to local companies.

The opposition also goes into this election hobbled by a parliamentary decision earlier this year to eliminate 20 seats from the 500-member lower house.

The cut applied to seats chosen by proportional representation, an election method that favors lesser-known opposition candidates by allowing voters to cast ballots for entire parties, rather than individuals.

Candidate Tezuka, a Democrat taking his second shot at a seat in Parliament, says Japan’s political world is frustrating for newcomers like himself.

``This is not like America, where power switches often between Republicans and Democrats,″ Tezuka said. ``In Japan, many people are afraid to make a change.″

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On the Net:

The Democratic Party of Japan: http://www.dpj.or.jp/english

The Japan Communist Party: http://www.jcp.or.jp/english/index.html

The Liberal Party: http://www.jiyuto.or.jp/index_e.htm

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