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Page last updated at 15:18 GMT, Monday, 17 August 2009 16:18 UK

New tricks as Japan election looms

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Video grab from LDP campaign ad
Would you trust this man, the LDP seems to be asking voters

A cartoon on the web page of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) shows a suave young man dining with a woman.

I'll make you happy if you pick me, the man says. I'll pay for childcare, education, your old age.

How will you afford all that, the woman asks. I'll figure that out once we're married, the man replies.

The man resembles a young Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, and the cartoon is intended to ram home the message that the DPJ cannot be trusted to run the country.

It is one of a number of new tactics being employed ahead of the 30 August general election, which could see the LDP ousted for only the second time in half a century.

The ailing giant, hit by scandals and economic crisis, is facing its strongest opposition yet. This election is going to be post-war Japan's first competitive two-party fight.

As formal campaigning kicks off, it is clear that both parties are trying to adapt to a vastly changed electoral environment in a bid to bring voters on board.

Local ties

For many years, LDP domination meant that the outcome of elections was not really in doubt.

Now the voters have no choice but to pay attention to each party, to what they are offering, and to take them as deciding factors
Kazuhiro Soda
Director of Campaign

Local unions and networks, sweetened with favours, would marshal support behind candidates, with whole communities voting the same way. Support was organised to ensure the success of as many LDP candidates as possible in multi-seat constituencies.

"Of course other party members were elected, but they wouldn't be in the majority. So the competition was basically between LDP candidates," said Kazuhiro Soda, director of Campaign, a documentary about Japan's electoral process.

"The party did not really have to appeal to voters on specific policy areas. The candidates just had to show that they were connected to the voters and had support from the local groups."

Prime Minister and LDP leader Taro Aso in debate with DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama - 12 August 2009

Candidates shook hands outside stations and at local events. They drove election trucks, shouting their names and party affiliations over and over again through loudspeakers.

While the economy flourished, this formula worked. But trouble hit in the early 1990s, when Japan's bubble burst.

Voters deserted the LDP, allowing a coalition of minor parties to take power. They only held on to it for nine months - but the interlude signalled change.

Koizumi-style

As the LDP struggled to adapt to a new economic reality, smaller parties began coalescing into a more credible opposition and, in 1998, four parties joined together to form the DPJ.

People moved to the cities, eroding the LDP's local networks. Corruption scandals made the electorate cynical. Localised incentives - rural roads, bridges and dams, for example - began to seem less attractive than a strong welfare net.

At the same time, the system changed to single-seat constituencies, plus a proportional representation list. Elections in Japan were beginning to take on a different shape.

DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama in debate with Prime Minister Taro Aso - 12 August 2009

Ahead of polls in 2003, the DPJ produced a policy manifesto setting out what it stood for - the first time such a tool had been used in Japan - and secured 177 of the 480 seats in parliament.

But the poll was won by charismatic LDP leader Junichiro Koizumi, who tore up the rule book two years later when he called an early election.

He campaigned on a single issue - postal privatisation - and tapped into public concern over LDP rule by portraying the election as an intra-party fight between his forces of reform and traditionalists favouring a malfunctioning status quo.

"There was great emphasis on personalities," said Koichi Nakano, a political analyst from Tokyo's Sophia University. "Koizumi and the LDP hijacked the media with stories of highly personal rivalries."

It won him a landslide victory - but when he stepped down two years later, his three subsequent replacements floundered, failing to convince voters they could handle the twin challenges of economic crisis and demographic change.

New tricks

Ahead of this election, the DPJ has a strong lead in opinion polls, but more than a third of the electorate are undecided. And while loudspeakers and handshakes remain the order of the day, the parties have also been trying new ways of securing votes.

They are, says Prof Nakano, trying to identify key issues and define the election in terms of what it means for Japan.

"The DPJ is trying to define the election as an opportunity for change. The LDP is trying to imply that it is the only responsible party and that voters should continue to trust it," he said.

US-style political consultants are increasingly being used to help candidates target particular groups, such as women or mothers.

Policy is being discussed; both parties have produced manifestos addressing issues like healthcare spending, pension reform, government waste and child-care benefits.

A costumed individual meant to resemble the DPJ leader shakes hands with a voter
Both parties are trying new strategies to lure voters

"Now the voters have no choice but to pay attention to each party, to what they are offering, and to take them as deciding factors," Mr Soda said.

Negative campaigning - like the LDP cartoon, which was also put on YouTube - has made an appearance, with LDP lawmakers repeatedly stressing that the DPJ is too inexperienced to govern.

But some modern electioneering tools are restricted. During the 12-day official campaign period, use of the internet - blogs, e-mail, websites, Twitter - is banned, preventing lawmakers from adopting the kind of youth-oriented campaigning that swept Barack Obama to power.

Tough limits on the distribution of printed material also exist, meaning that candidates can struggle to get detailed messages out.

And while the two main parties are throwing everything into the campaign, a host of smaller ones are working just as hard to lure disenchanted undecided voters.

New Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner, is likely to retain support from members of the Buddhist Soka Gakkai organisation. The Communist Party, currently the fourth-largest in parliament, could well profit from the economic downturn.

Regional and fringe parties and a new group, The Happiness Realisation Party, which wants to double the population by 2030, are also competing for votes.

Mr Soda expects turn-out on 30 August to be high.

"This could be a turning point in Japan's democratic history," he said. "If this isn't the election that voters turn out for, then what is?"



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