Japan's Ruling Party Regains Control of Upper House

LAST spring, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the weekend's Upper House election would herald the breakup of the Liberal Democrats, the monolithic party that has governed Japan for most of the last four decades.

Earlier this year, the opposition Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) had its pick of issues: political-corruption scandals involving Cabinet ministers, and an unpopular bill to send Japanese troops abroad on United Nations peacekeeping operations. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, elected last fall, seemed likely to join the ranks of short-term Japanese prime ministers, as the backroom leagues within his own party jockeyed to have him ousted as a scapegoat for the party's problems.

None of the above has transpired. There was just one issue in the July 26 election - the economy, in which the ruling LDP, despite its problems, is seen as a miracle worker. Results from Sunday gave LDP 69 of the 127 seats up for election, half of the Upper House total of 252 seats. (Upper House elections follow a three-year cycle in which half the seats come open each time.)

The victory left the LDP with a sound majority of 142 seats when its parliamentary allies, Komeito or "Clean Government" party and the Democratic Socialist Party, are counted in. Although on some issues the two smaller conservative parties may not back up the ruling party, for most purposes the election has returned the LDP to the controlling position it lost in the last Upper House election three years ago.

Since 1955, the LDP has been the party of Japan's economic reconstruction, and when the economy goes sour, voters scurry for its shelter. By any standards, the Japanese economy is in bad shape now, with real estate, the stock market, and banking sectors all in a state of near-collapse.

In the week before the election, the Tokyo stock market fell by more than 6 percent, causing Mr. Miyazawa enough 11th-hour anxiety to rush through another interest rate cut of half a percentage point.

Despite the LDP's win, the stock market fell further yesterday. The Nikkei stock market index of industrial companies closed at 15,373.34, down 124.45 points from Friday and its lowest level in six years.

The election was "no miracle, just muddle," says Paul Summerville, chief economist at Jardine Fleming Securities in Tokyo. "The stock market is making the point that ... it's going to be a long haul."

Except for the LDP, few Japanese seem to be thrilled with the election results.

"We're frustrated with the LDP, and we're frustrated with the opposition," says Hideo Sato, a professor of international relations at Tsukuba University. Professor Sato was among 46 million Japanese, representing about half of the registered voters, who didn't bother to go to the polls.

"We had the feeling that the LDP would win anyway," he said. "My participation was not going to make any difference."

By the time the election campaign began on July 11, an LDP sweep already seemed likely, and pollsters were able to call the results within a few seats. A Fuji Television Network poll conducted on Saturday predicted 71 seats for the LDP, 22 for the opposition socialists, and 12 for Komeito. The results were 69 seats for the LDP, 22 seats for the SDPJ, and 14 seats for Komeito.

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