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Japanese leaders ask for forgiveness in Sunday's elections

Elections ordinarily present voters with a chance to demand somethingfrom politicians - vision, direction, goals, some tangible assurance of leadership capable of propelling a society forward along a stable course.

Sunday's elections here will be a bit different. Members of Japan's long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are asking something of voters this time. They're asking for absolution, and it appears they're going to get it.

"We have a saying in Japan," said sociologist Saichi Yagi of Hiroshima University. "Hate the thing committed, but don't hate the person who did it - don't lash the dead body."

Over the past two years, the scandal-riddled, money-driven LDP has given Japan's 90-million voters reasons aplenty to call for a public lashing: There was, for example, the massive cash-for-influence scandal that touched almost every major figure in the LDP. The controversy exposed a system of money politics on a grand scale and finally forced party faction boss Noboru Takeshita to resign as prime minister last spring.

The passage, over the virulent objections of consumers, of a 3 percent national sales tax.

New laws allowing increased food imports, a policy that has enraged farmers.

And charges that former prime minister Sousuke Uno had paid a geisha to be his mistress, an indiscretion that spotlighted the LDP's widely-perceived indifference to issues involving women and minorities.

Last summer, angry voters censured the LDP, stripping the party of its majority in parliament's House of Councilors for the first time in the LDP's 35-year history.

Sunday, voters will elect the 512 members of the more powerful House of Representatives, the so-called lower house of Japan's bicameral parliament, or Diet. The party that controls the lower house names the prime minister and Cabinet.

Despite repeated pledges to mend its sordid ways, the LDP has undergone little change since its drubbing last summer. Enormous amounts of cash still lubricate the party's vote-getting machinery;

Takeshita, though publicly disgraced, still controls the LDP's most powerful faction; and of the 325 candidates the LDP is fronting for Sunday's elections not one is a woman.

Analysts believe the LDP will spend more than $1-billion on the two-week lower house campaign alone. Much of that, according to local reports, was secured by LDP functionaries who twisted the arms of some of Japan's largest multinational corporations.

Despite the party's seeming recalcitrance, several national opinion polls indicate that the LDP will win the 257 seats it needs to maintain control of the lower house, though perhaps barely.

Scandals may have eroded the electorate's trust in its leaders, and politicians' arrogance may have angered voters. But prosperity remains the central issue here.

By and large, voters don't appear to be in the mood to reject the party that's delivered 35 years of stability and, more recently, an economic boom now in its 36th month.

"The LDP made Japan a prosperous and affluent country," said LDP backer Michiko Yamazaki, a middle-aged woman living in a Tokyo suburb. "For now, we are supporting them."

Still, high-handedness has its price. The LDP is expected to lose somewhere between 20 and 40 of the 304 seats it won during the last lower house elections, held in 1986.

Picking up the slack will be the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), led by Takako Doi, the first woman ever to head a major political party in Japan. The nation's strongest opposition group, the JSP is the majority party in the Diet's upper house.

The socialists won 86 seats in lower house elections four years ago and will likely add between 30 and 50 seats to that number Sunday, according to the results of a national opinion poll taken by the Kyodo News Service.

Governing on a sharply reduced margin would be a new experience for the LDP, which has never had to deal seriously with a formidable opposition force. Japan, at long last, is flirting with its first legitimate two-party political system, and none too soon as far as voters are concerned.

"The monopolization by one party is not good," said Junichi Nakamura, a 33-year-old farmer in Hiroshima. "A balanced coalition of the ruling and opposition parties would be good."

It is the spread of that sort of thinking that the LDP finds most

troublesome at the moment.

Hoping to dispel notions that a competent alternative to the ruling party exists, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, the LDP's president, tells voters that only his party can effectively lead Japan toward the 21st Century.

It is Kaifu's way of tapping into a Japanese obsession with the coming decade, an era that promises to test Tokyo's ability to exert global influence on a par with Japan's role as the world's second-largest economic superpower.

Behind such expressions of lofty ideals, Kaifu's mission for the party is clear. He is asking for public forgiveness, and he'll get his answer at Sunday's polls.