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Election Could Mark a Political Turning Point in Japan

October 19, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Casting his conservative party as a force for change, Japan’s prime minister made his finals appeal to voters across Tokyo before elections that are expected to strengthen his grip on power.

Three years after voter ire over a spate of scandals ended nearly four decades of Liberal Democratic rule, polls showed the party may regain its dominance in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

Wrapping up his campaign with an all-day blitz around the capital, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto vowed to change the heart of the system that thrived under years of LDP rule: Japan’s powerful bureaucracy.

At a campaign stop in the industrial city of Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo, Hashimoto called for rolling back a morass of regulation he said was choking off individual initiative.

``Many people have good ideas but can’t put them into practice because of the system,″ the prime minister told voters on the 12th and final day of the campaign.

Hashimoto was not alone in running against the bureaucracy. The other four main parties _ the conservative New Frontier Party, the new liberal-leaning Democratic Party, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party _ all insist they are the true reformers.

``You all have to take back from the bureaucrats your right to make laws through your elected representatives,″ shouted a hoarse Takako Doi, head of the Social Democrats, at a speech in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

But many Japanese are skeptical that such reforms will actually be carried out _ whatever party wins. Polls predict a record low turnout among the almost 98 million eligible voters.

Some potential voters are put off by the proliferation of parties and shifting alliances.

``Politics are so messy, the parties are always changing their names _ it’s hard to follow,″ Mayumi Furukawa, 20, said near the Doi rally. She did not plan to vote in Sunday’s election.

Despite the skepticism, polls predict that the Liberal Democrats could very well win an absolute majority in Parliament’s 500-seat lower house, which selects the prime minister.

Such a result would cap a stunning comeback from the last election, in 1993, when the party stumbled from power for the first time in 38 years.

Since then, Japan has had more than its share of turmoil.

Three different coalition governments and four prime ministers have held power, with Hashimoto taking over in January at the head of an odd-couple, Liberal Democrat-Socialist coalition.

The country also suffered the twin shocks of the January 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people and the terrorist nerve gas attack that killed 12 on Tokyo’s subways two months later.

The anemic recovery from four years of recession, a scandal over the use of blood products tainted with the AIDS virus and the costly failure of a string of housing lenders have led some to question the current system of government.

Beneath the talk of reform, what Hashimoto offers most is stability _ and, his supporters hope, a return to the brighter days of the 1970s and ’80s, when Japan’s economy grew strongly and steadily.

On Saturday, candidates campaigned across their districts and in Tokyo, many beginning the day by cruising through neighborhoods in election vans with loudspeakers that blared their messages, literally waking up voters.

Hashimoto, who gave 15 speeches Saturday, has pledged to cut the number of government ministries in half to reduce Japan’s budget deficit and to eliminate government red tape that many businesses say inhibits growth.

He also wants to raise the national sales tax from 3 percent to 5 percent, a move he says is needed to offset a ballooning debt and help support an aging population.

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