Confusion rules in fight for poll position

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 July, 1993, 12:00am

TRITE as this sounds, what happened last weekend at a political rally in Hyogo could only have happened in Japan.

A newspaper report covered it matter of factly - an election campaign fight between seven candidates for five seats in the western Japanese prefecture's number two constituency, just west of Osaka. But it was the picture that caught the attention.

On a raised platform in front of a large seated crowd, a woman identified only as the wife of an unnamed candidate was on her knees, her forehead bent close to the floor in an unmistakable gesture of submission and humility.

The camera had managed to freeze a warm moment of applause from her middle-class, mostly middle-aged audience. An elderly woman on the front row was dabbing a handkerchief at her face, crying.

The caption read: ''A candidate's wife in Hyogo kneels and bows.'' What it didn't say, and didn't have to, was that through her act of supplication she and her husband were counting on cleaning up a few votes with some old fashioned psychological manipulation.

This remarkable kowtowing for votes trade-off is based on the assumption that a devoted spouse must make the candidate a worthy politician. It has not been an uncommon phenomenon in Japan, where voters appear gullible enough to fall for it, and it is about to become a lot more popular.

On July 18, in what has been called the most important general election in Japan's post-war history, about 95 million voters will have the power to elect 511 members to the Diet's Lower House.

And in an election which more than any other in modern times has presented the Japanese people with a real choice and, finally, the power to change the way they are governed, the value of a bit of public bowing and scraping is not being underestimated.

The question is, having had what used to be called ''people power'' placed within their reach, will the Japanese have the maturity to bring to account a money-for-favours political system so mired in corruption it is an international joke? Moreover, will they have the patience to sift a forbidding mass of newly-created party political reformist propaganda and reach a wise decision, or will they fall back, confused, on the familiar vote-begging, vote-buying pantomime? Confusion has been the dominant word in Japanese politics since June 18, when dissidents in Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's ruling Liberal Democratic Party joined opposition parties to defeat the government in a no-confidence vote.

Mr Miyazawa, who had been given notice of such a move against the government over his broken pledges to introduce political reform bills, chose not to resign. Instead, he dissolved the Diet and called an election.

Only the most cavalier predictions have him surviving as prime minister beyond polling day, which most political analysts consider will end in a mini-rout of the LDP or at the very least the loss of the party's majority in the Lower House and its 38-yearstranglehold on Japanese politics.

If anything seems clear one week before the election, that much does, and even then it seems no more distinct a probability than a dozen others in a future political landscape so hazy it still has pundits baffled.

The local media have talked up the coming election as the start of a new era. The people, however, seem unconvinced, and the reason, according to some observers, is that they simply are too confused to have a clear idea.

Behind the apparent mass confusion is the emergence of a reformist movement that not only has spawned three new political parties but which also has been embraced, ironically, by those who for years were at the centre of Japan's corrupt political web.

Next Sunday, voters will be asked to decide, in essence, which of more than 950 candidates representing nine parties and numerous independent platforms are either untainted by corruption or are serious about eliminating it.

The choice is complicated. The LDP, shaken to its roots by its recent defeat in parliament and the defection of a major faction (now the newly-formed Shinseito or Japan Renewal Party) led by former finance minister Tsutomu Hata, represents stability.

But despite its sudden enthusiasm for political reform, the LDP appears unlikely to generate enough last-minute credibility to retain a majority in the Lower House. The best it can realistically hope for is a partner in a coalition government. But with whom? To complicate matters, Shinseito, a party not entirely unconnected with the LDP corruption network, has been pushing for a coalition that does not feature the LDP.

Shinseito's early euphoric hopes of a coalition alliance with the second largest party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), have evaporated amid public examination and subsequent ridicule of the parties' policies.

Watching all this is the fledgling but high-flying Japan New Party and the breakaway LDP party Shinto Sakigake, whose combined but yet-to-be committed strength could give them the balance of power in a coalition which might or might not feature the LDP.

The permutations in the election run-up seem endless, and there are those who believe the job of picking the right one will be beyond a people unused to being given the responsibility of choice.

A cartoon in the mass circulation newspaper Asahi Shimbun this week portrayed the nine parties as watermelons, with a shopper (voter) tapping their skins in vain attempt to guess which held the best contents.

''Many voters will enter the booth on July 18 hoping for a Lower House that talks less and does more about change,'' said the English language Mainichi Daily News.

''But how can they distinguish the true reformer from the 11th-hour opportunist scrambling on to the bandwagon? Can we trust candidates' promises?'' The answer to this perennially-posed political conundrum is likely to be of no concern to at least a quarter of Japan's eligible voters. The voter turnout in the last election was a record high 73 per cent, and current indications are that the apathy level is higher this time.

After almost four decades of one party rule, during which the Japanese can hardly be said to have developed or exercised political discernment, the nation may yet opt for the devil it knows.

Indeed, despite a succession of humiliating scandals, the money-for-favours political system remains so ingrained in the national psyche that even now it is being used cynically to push the new reform barrow.

Just last week, voters in one rural western constituency reportedly had free cartons of beer delivered to their doors by an enterprising candidate sensing a need for some old fashioned persuasion.

And on a more serious level, Finance Minister Yoshiro Hayashi and Construction Minister Kishiro Nakamura saw nothing wrong in approaching the banking and construction sectors recently for political donations, evidently forgetting why the country is facing an election.

Back in Hyogo's number two constituency, the candidate with the kneeling wife is one of four men and three women battling for public approval and a seat in the next parliament.

Five of them will go through. Perhaps they will include one-time SDPJ leader Takako Doi, 64, swept into prominence four years ago on the so-called Madonna Boom women's movement and later dumped in a faction fight.

Another might be political newcomer Uriko Koike, a glamorous former television newsreader riding the ''image politics' wave as a Japan New Party candidate.

And maybe Kenzaburo Hara, at 86 the oldest candidate in the nation and a winner an incredible 18 times in the electorate, will get up again for the LDP on whatever modified reformist platform has been decided for him by party headquarters.

As the days tick by this coming week, those sensing defeat in Hyogo and elsewhere may resort in desperation to a bit of knee-bending. And who knows, it might just do the trick.