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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 16:05 GMT
Japan voters eye two-horse race
As Japan prepares to go to the polls, the BBC's Jonathan Head in Tokyo asks if the country is set for genuine two-party politics.

Yoshinori Suematsu never stops moving these days.

The 46-year-old former diplomat and candidate for the opposition Democrat Party (DPJ) is campaigning hard to keep his parliamentary seat in the Tokyo 19th district, travelling down even its narrowest streets in his campaign minibus to rally the voters.

Yoshinori Suematsu
Yoshinori Suematsu highlights the DPJ's groundbreaking manifesto
The loudspeaker blares out the DPJ promises of change - but the word you hear most of all is "manifesto".

In their determination to unseat the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has dominated Japanese politics for half a century, the DPJ have borrowed the idea of a manifesto from Britain.

The slickly-produced document sitting in piles next to Mr Suematsu is modelled on the last manifesto of the British Labour Party.

Aside from several softly-lit photos of the party leader Naoto Kan, it includes five promises, and two "appeals", focusing mainly on slashing the subsidies and public spending projects which have been a hallmark of the LDP's almost unbroken 48-year rule.

"This is a new page in Japan's history," Mr Suematsu told me "The first time a party has issued a manifesto. The people hear my words and support me, because this is the promise of me and my party."

The Democrats have handed out more then 10 million of their manifestos, and the initial reaction from the public has been positive.

Mr Koizumi has so successfully cultivated his own anti-establishment image, that it is difficult for the DPJ to portray themselves as the true party of reform

"I'm sure they can't carry out everything in here," one woman told me after reading the manifesto, "but I think they will do their best. This means if they win the election we have to keep our eyes on them to make sure they stick to their promises".

But is a manifesto alone enough to persuade voters to back a relatively new and untested party?

The DPJ was only formed in 1996, and expanded three months ago when it merged with the smaller Liberal Party.

The opinion polls suggest the LDP will still win an overall majority of the 480 seats in the Diet, although up to 40% of voters remain undecided.

Much will depend on the turnout.

At the last election it was 62%. The higher it is, the better the DPJ are expected to do.

The LDP meanwhile is relying on the extraordinary personal popularity of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and on its deep-rooted support in Japan's provinces, thanks to the generous subsidies doled out by central government.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
Mr Koizumi's LDP is under pressure to define what it stands for too

But the Democrats' manifesto, and the youth and energy of many of their candidates, have changed the nature of this election.

Mr Koizumi also now talks about his "manifesto" for reforming the country and his own party, although he has not been able to publish anything as detailed as the DPJ - precisely because so many within his own party disagree strongly with his reform agenda.

The DPJ hope that the increasing focus on the two parties' policies and its leading personalities does mark a break with the past.

Traditionally the LDP has acted like an institutionalised ruling party, encompassing a whole range of political views and interests, but believing only in whatever policies would help keep it in power.

In the past it was the elderly faction-leaders in the LDP who chose ministers and decided policy behind the scenes.

Now that it faces a strong, single opponent, it is under pressure to define what its core political beliefs really are. Increasingly, it is the outspoken Mr Koizumi who is speaking for the party.

However Mr Koizumi has so successfully cultivated his own anti-establishment image, that it is difficult for the DPJ to portray themselves as the true party of reform.

There is of course a huge contradiction between the prime minister's reformist promises and the conservative instincts of most of his party.

But he has probably made sufficient progress in reviving the economy and shaking up his party to deny the Democrats a real stab at power - this time at least.

The BBC's Jonathan Head reports from Tokyo
"Both main parties must convince a large number of undecided voters to back them"

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