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In Kyoto, ruling-party candidates battle against . . . each other

This ancient capital is the scene of one of the most bitter battles of the general election campaign. But the fight here is not so much between the ruling Liberal Democrats and the various opposition parties as it is among the Liberal Democrats themselves.

A major reason is Japan's multi-seat constituency system that forces candidates of the same party to compete against one another. Nationally, polls are predicting a small majority for the Liberal Democrats in both houses of the Diet in the June 22 election.

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The Asahi newspaper, for instance, expects the ruling party to win 272 seats in the 511-seat lower house. Whether the party that has exclusively ruled Japan for 25 years will gain such a majority depends on how it does inplaces like Kyoto's first district, which includes eight of the city's 10 wards.

Despite the incursions of modernity, Kyoto is still one of the most charming cities of Japan. Its main streets were laid out in a checkerboard pattern more than 1,000 years ago. Temples raise their soaring black tile roofs to the sky, and in the narrow alleys between the main avenues you may still see geisha walk by in stunning komono, as well as pilgrim monks in their gray habits and wide straw hats. Around the corner, back on a main shopping street, two jean-clad teen-agers stroll along sipping McDonald's milkshakes.

The first district is a five-seat constituency. Only one of the seats is held by a Liberal Democrat. The communists hold two seats, the moderate Democratic Socialists and the reformist Buddhist Komeito one seat each.

"We used to get 190,000 votes altogether in this district," says an aide to Katsuichiro Kunieda, one of three Liberal Democrat candidates. "In October last year we got only 90,000 -- not enough to get two seats. The party is not going to have a stable majority again until it reverses this kind of decline.

"We want a new conservatism -- a conservatism that does not rest on past achievements but that works just as hard as, or harder than, the communists and the Komeito for the everyday citizens of Kyoto."

(Both the communists and the Komeito have strong grass-roots organizations that work with great energy on local problems from schooling and welfare to pedestrian walkways.)

Mr. Kunieda, however, does not have his party's formal endorsement. At official party campaign headquarters near the handsome city hall, aides to the official candidate, Mikio Okuda, castigate the Kunieda candidacy as "an act benefiting the enemy."

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The third Liberal Democrat candidate is Isao Tanaka, thrice Justice Minister. Mr. Tanaka was one of the 69 Liberal Democrats who abstained on a nonconfidence vote May 16 brought by the opposition socialists, thus enabling the vote to pass and to precipitate the present election.

"Mr. Tanaka has always fought a clean, thrifty campaign," says an aide. "He abstained on the nonconfidence vote as a matter of principle. He has always said that the Liberal Democratic Party must clean its own house in order to show itself spotless to the voters."

If voters who didn't bother to turn out for the previous election flock to the polls this time, two Liberal Democrats might be elected -- but not three. Desperate to win as many votes as possible, the tendency is for candidates of the same party to appeal to the electorate: "Choose me and not my fellow party candidates."

The phenomenon is more pronounced here in Kyoto than elsewhere, but the pattern is repeated in constituency after constituency. The only permanent answer is to have one-seat constituencies. But the present system has lasted so long already that it will take much more than one election, or two, or set things right.

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