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Japan's political campaigns look like those in US -- but not quite

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''It's a bit like the Mafia choosing a new godfather.''

With this scathing comment, the middle-aged Japanese businessman interviewed enroute to work dismissed the current campaign by four leading lights of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to gain the party's presidency and with it the right to be prime minister.

''It's got nothing to do with us because we aren't being consulted,'' said a secretary. ''And whoever wins, it will still be the same old group of politicians running things.''

With Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki's surprise decision last month to resign, the factions in his party are feuding bitterly over the succession. For 35 years the only political change Japan has seen is the ascendancy of one LDP faction or another. In 1972, for instance, Kakuei Tanaka spent a fortune to win enough votes from LDP members of the Diet (parliament) to beat Takeo Fukuda.

Public outcry over the dominance of ''money politics'' led party bosses in 1978 to institute a ''more democratic system.'' As there were sufficient candidates, a primary election was held involving all registered party members. The top two vote-getters faced a runoff vote involving only LDP Dietmen, making it a rather narrow exercise in democracy. Now the LDP is going the primary route a second time.

The rules have been changed a bit. Three candidates will go forward to the runoff vote by Dietmen alone. The candidates have been allowed to buy from party headquarters for approximately $12,500 each a list of the LDP membership to make canvassing easier. (Last time, the names were kept secret in the hopes of avoiding vote-buying.)

There are some superficial resemblances in the campaign to American primary elections. Dietmen have returned to their home districts to drum up support for the candidate they favor. There is considerable vote canvassing by telephone and mail.


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