Nakasone toys with call for early election in Japan

Members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party are mending political fences with voters in anticipation of a general election. The effort may be premature.

Results in the first of a series of elections scheduled for this year - 44 prefectural assembly and 13 gubernatorial races last weekend - were so ambiguous as to provide few clues to whether Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone dare risk an early dissolution of the Japanese Diet (parliament).

He has until mid-1984 to do so. But there has been a growing expectation that he would expand a June vote for half the seats in the upper House of Councillors to include election of the more important lower House of Representatives.

Factions within the ruling party disagree on the merits of a double election in June. The largest faction supporting the prime minister, headed by former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka who is under indictment for the Lockheed bribery scandal, favors early elections. Mr. Tanaka is due to be sentenced in the fall following a widely publicized trial this past winter. The Tanaka faction argues that national elections should be held before the Tanaka case is again in the news in order to minimize losses by Tanaka's Diet supporters.

The litmus test was to have been a good performance by the ruling party in last weekend's local elections, widely billed as a judgement on Mr. Nakasone. The prime minister has aroused considerable concern through a sharp turn to the right, especially in key areas like defense, since assuming leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last November.

But it would be a mistake to draw a national message from the confusing series of local results. The results of two important races are a sharp setback for Mr. Nakasone. The LDP lost the governor's seat in the northern island of Hokkaido to a socialist after 24 years of unbroken rule, and a candidate backed by the socialists and communists ended 16 years of LDP power in the Fukuoka gubernatorial election in the south.

Both races were difficult for the Liberal Democrats, and it was earlier considered certain that victory would have encouraged Nakasone to plunge ahead with an early appeal to the nation for a renewed mandate.

Nakasone and other senior LDP officials had campaigned hard on behalf of the party's candidates in both battles, thus making the vote partly one of prestige.

In the Tokyo gubernatorial election, Mr. Nakasone's policies were an issue. Opposition candidate Hideo Matsuoka, a well-known journalist, hammered away against the prime minister's hawkish statements on defense and constitutional revision, urging voters to support ''the cause of peace.''

The issue really did not catch fire, however, as incumbent governor Shinichi Suzuki concentrated instead on reform of Tokyo metropolitan finances. Mr. Matsuoka lost, which seems less to do with his message, but rather the fact he was a last minute choice after the Socialist and Communist parties finally buried their differences.

The LDP also won the other gubernatorial elections, in almost every case through re-election of the incumbent who was often unopposed. The prefectural assembly races also favored the LDP and other middle-of-the-road parties.

The left-wing victories in Hokkaido and Fukuoka certainly gave new heart to the opposition, with the Socialists talking of introducing a Diet no-confidence motion against Nakasone. But none of the opposition parties are in any shape to fight a general election now, especially with low campaign funds.

That won't stop the election speculation.

Nakasone is under strong pressure mainly from his mentor, Tanaka, to go to the polls in full force in June.

Other elements of the party, led by former premiers Takeo Fukuda and Takeo Miki are strongly opposed to the idea. With the economic growth down and very little to tempt the voter - especially as a proposed tax cut has been delayed - they believe the only result of an early election now would be loss of seats for the LDP.

They also believe that Nakasone currently is too controversial and that time is needed to smooth out the sharp corners of his public image before he can safely be allowed out before the national electorate.

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