Suddenly, like a thunderstorm descending out of a clear blue sky, an election that almost nobody wanted has been thrust on Japan. Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira has dissolved the House of Representatives and called a general election for June 22. He had lost a vote of confidence May 16 by the unexpectedly large margin of 243 votes to 187.
Mr. Ohira was stunned by the vote in which members of his own party deserted him. Objections to Mr. Ohira range from accusations of arrogance to unhappiness over handling inflation, unemployment, and failure to deal with political scandals.
Mr. Ohira likens himself to an ox -- slow-moving, but patient and bearing the burdens of others. The son of a farmer, his bulldog face is the delight of cartoonists.
But under this plodding exterior, Mr. Ohira is capable of deft political footwork, as when he ousted his predecessor Takeo Fukuda two years ago, or when he managed to hand on as premier last October despite near-defeat in the general election.
The question now is not so much whether Mr. Ohira will win or lose as whether he will managed to find a number of ways of not losing -- that is, of preserving his position while making tactical concessions to whatever forces are willing to come to terms with him. The rule of Mr. Ohira's Liberal-Democrats is threatened , not so much by their political opponents as by dissidence within the party. The question is being asked whether, after a quarter century of political stability under the Liberal-Democrats, the country is now heading toward the treacherous sands of shifting multiparty coalitions.
Internationally, Japan's voice will be muted at a time when the need for Western coordination is great and when important meetings such as the economic summit at Venice next month are being prepared.
Mr. Ohira's ability to help his friend President Carter on issues such as economic sanctions against Iran or a stronger Western stance against the Soviet Union is at least temporarily suspended. The Prime Minister has taken a great political risk by calling an election at this time.If defeated, he will lose his job. But, faced with a united opposition as well as by a mutiny within his own party, he had little choice.
Like Italy's Christian Democrats, Japan's Liberal Democrats are a collection of factions owing allegiance to personalities rather than to principles or policies. Mr. Ohira heads his own considerable faction and is backed by that belonging to former premier Tanaka -- a faction whose internal cohesion is so strong it has been nicknamed the Tanaka army.
Other factions, notably those headed by former premiers Takeo Fukuda and Takeo Miki, have been hostile to Mr. Ohira, who was instrumental in the downfall of them both. No one -- not the dissident factions nor even the socialists -- really wanted an election so soon after the last one. Campaigns are expensive and the war chests of most parties and factions have not been replenished sufficiently since the last one.
Mr. Ohira counted on this known reluctance to keep his opponents at bay. Yet , even in consensus-loving Japan, politics is a game swayed by unpredictable passions, resentments, miscalculations, and pure chance.
If Mr. Ohira had not gone to President Tito's funeral, his domestic antennae might have picked up the danger signals in time. Now the fat is in the fire, and both Mr. Ohira and his opponents must live with the consequences. Voter preferences are not believed to have changed all that much since last year's elections, and the Liberal Democrats may again squeak through with a narrow victory or conceivably suffer a narrow defeat.
In either case, they will probably have to look to coalition government in order to obtain a stable parliamentary majority. Messrs. Ohira and Tanaka are reported to be quite prepared to do so. They will try to prise the Komeito or the Democratic Socialists, or both, from their alliance with the socialists through the offer of tempting Cabinet posts.
Mr. Ohira's opponents, Messrs. Fukuda and Miki, must also decide whether to remain within the Liberal Democratic fold or to start a new conservative party. Whatever they do, if they unexpectedly win more seats than Mr. Ohira and his backers, they, too, will have to approach opposition parties for a coalition of some sort.
This election, therefore, could herald the end of one political era -- that of stable one-party rule by the Liberal Democrats -- and the opening of a new and uncertain age of multiparty government.
Mr. Ohira's problems relate both to the opposition and his own party. The cards he has to play are the political strengths represented by his own faction within the ruling party and by the unreserved backing of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka.
Last year's general election gave the Liberal Democrats a paper-thin majority in the 511-seat House of Representatives, the more powerful of Japan's two chambers. (The upper house, the House of Councillors, is weaker than the United States Senate, stronger than the Britain's House of Lords. Upper house elections, by coincidence, are also scheduled for June 22.)
They have managed to continue to rule because of a divided opposition. To get any legislation through, however, including the budget, they must obtain the support of at least one opposition party. A whole raft of legislation has had to be scrapped because this support was withheld. The largest opposition party is the socialists, with 106 seats. (The Liberal Democrats have 256, plus the support of four nominal independents.)
Next comes the iconoclastic Buddhist party, the Komeito, with 58 seats. Then the Communists, with 41 seats, and the Democratic Socialist Party, with 36. Minor parties and independents account for the remaining seats. The Socialists, like Britain's Labourites, range from dyed-in-the-wool Marxists to Christian moderates. The Marxists have been traditionally in the ascendancy. But the current chairman, Ichio Asukata, has been trying to forge an alliance with the more moderate Democratic Socialists and the Komeito, even at the cost of losing communist support.