Little spark in Japan election

Drizzle, drizzle, drizzle. With only a couple of days to go before parliamentary elections here Sunday, the mood of the Japanese voters seems to be as indecisive as the weather during this, the rainy season.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has said he wants the election to be a kind of referendum on his 3-year administration. But his campaign has failed to catch fire. So far there are few signs of the landslide Mr. Nakasone needs to win another term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and hence as prime minister. (On the campaign trail in northern Japan. Story, Page 13.)

Most observers expect Nakasone's Liberal-Democrats to regain the majority they lost in 1983. (They rule today in coalition with the tiny New Liberal Club.) But how many seats will they win? A bare majority of 257 in the 512-seat House of Representatives? A ``stable majority'' of more than 271? Or somewhere in between?

With Nakasone's future in doubt, some in the news media are calling this the shirake election. In other words, a passionless or boring one.

Why should this be so? Mr. Nakasone has been anything but a passionless leader. He has identified Japan more clearly with the Western alliance than any predecessor has. He has worked hard to lessen trade frictions with the United States. At home, he has proposed sweeping reforms in education, taxes, and the bureaucracy.

But in the present election, the prime minister appears to have decided to keep away from controversial issues and to raise as few waves as possible.

He has said not a word about increasing defense expenditures beyond 1 percent of gross national product -- a taboo he used to seem eager to break. He is beginning to shy away from another domestic pledge -- to reduce the government deficit by cutting expenditures other than defense and foreign economic aid to the bone.

He has categorically denied opposition accusations that once the election is over he will introduce a Japanese version of the value-added tax.

The opposition parties keep hammering away at the theme that once the election is over, Nakasone will do all the things he is keeping quiet about now.

He will, they say, increase defense spending, move Japan politically to the right, raise taxes, squeeze the people's livelihood.

Already the high value of the yen, they say, is forcing many small businesses into bankruptcy.

The Japan Socialist Party is the principal opposition party, and it has been most vociferous on this score. There is also the Komeito (Clean Government Party), affiliated with a Buddhist sect, the moderate Democratic Socialists, and the Communists, plus a gaggle of minor parties from the Social Democratic Federation to the Salaried Workers' Party.

Elections are being held not only for the powerful House of Representatives but also for the upper house, the House of Councilors.

The voters, however, keep their own counsel. An opinion poll taken by the Nihon Keizai, the Japan economic journal, between June 19 and June 22, showed 38.6 percent supporting the Liberal Democrats, 12.6 percent supporting the Socialists, 5.1 percent the Komeito, 3.6 percent the Democratic Socialists, and 2.5 percent the Communists. More than 30 percent are undecided.

With the exception of the Communists, the opposition parties have formed a loose electoral front, the object of which is to deny the Liberal-Democrats a majority. But beyond this general goal, the opposition is not united.

The Democratic Socialists and the Komeito would not be averse to joining a coalition with the Liberal Democrats -- but not with Nakasone as prime minister. The Socialists, who remain Marxist in ideology, would probably refuse such a partnership.

The ``passionless'' mood of the voters benefits the opposition rather than the Liberal Democratic Party, in this sense: It will not deprive the ruling party of a majority, but neither will it bring about a landslide.

This means, in turn, that the odds are against Nakasone managing to remain in power beyond the expiration of his current term at the end of October.

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