Japan ruling party wins, but who's in charge?

The Liberal Democrats, conservatives who have ruled Japan since 1955, have won a landslide victory. They are now in a position to provide Japan with strong, stable leadership for the next four years -- if only they can decide who is to lead the party.

Constituency after constituency resounded with cries of "banzai" as Liberal Democratic candidates painted in the black eyes of their wooden red daruma dolls. The act is a traditional symbol of having achieved one's wish.

Favored by good weather and a high voter turnout, the Liberal Democrats took 284 of the 511 seats in the House of Representatives. After adding independents of conservative background, the party may have 290 seats altogether, compared with 257 before the election. (Voter turnout was 74.57 percent, the highest since 1960.)

In so doing, they reversed a trend toward declining vote and seat totals that had gone on for more than a decade. There is now no early likelihood of a coalition government, either of Liberal Democrats with other parties or of the opposition parties alone. The voters have shown a clear preference for stable conservative government over the unknown risks of a multiparty coalition.

Of the opposition parties, the Socialists managed to hold on to the 107 seats they had before the election. But the two most enthusiastic proponents of coalition government, the Democratic Socialists and the Komeito (based on a reformist Buddhist sect), lost seats -- the latter, heavily. So did the Communist. By contrast, the New Liberal Club, a group of reform-minded younger conservatives, gained eight seats and now holds 12 seats instead of four. The Democratic Socialist seat total went down from 36 to 32, and that of the Komeito from 58 to 33. the Communists went down from 41 seats before the election to 29 today.

These seat totals refer to the lower house, the House of Representatives, which has powers analogous to those of Britain's House of Commons. One-half of the upper house's 252 seats were also up for re-election. Upper house results, where the Liberal Democrats will also command a comfortable majority, will be known in detail early June 24.

Meanwhile, there is almost total uncertainty as to who will succeed Masayoshi Ohira as Japan's next prime minister. Mr. Ohira passed on suddenly June 12 in the midst of the election campaign. With no need to rely on opposition votes, victorious Liberal Democrats must still go through a tortuous process of backroom maneuvering before they can reach agreement on their next leader.

The names most frequently mentioned as candidates for the prime ministership are Yasuhiro Nakasone, former party secretary- general; Toshio Komoto, former minister of international trade; and Kiichi Miyazawa, former foreign minister. None of them as yet can be considered to have the inside track.

All that can be said with certainty is that former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka has strengthened his position as kingmaker. Both Mr. Tanaka's faction and that of Mr. Ohira have emerged from the election with more than 50 seats each. Against their opposition, no one can be elected prime minister.

It will be mid-July before a new prime minister is chosen. Meanwhile Masayoshi Ito will continue as acting prime minister. A new party president must also be chosen, but not, according to party rules, until the fall. Complicating the picture is the election defeat of octogenarian party vice-president Eiichi Nishimura, who might otherwise have served as a temporary party president until the fall.

Internationally, Japan will continue to be a strong ally of the United States. Differences in nuances will emerge depending on who is chosen as prime minister. But the defeat of the opposition parties means that Japan's powerful bureaucracy will continue to have the same latitude it has hitherto enjoyed in framing and executing the monetary and industrial policies that have so far brought Japan through perilous international economic waters.

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