TOKYO -- Japan awoke to political uncertainty today for the first time since 1955, after voters in yesterday's election trashed a 38-year-old party structure but created nothing to replace it.
Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa told reporters at a news conference today that he has not decided whether to resign, and that he faces no deadline until the new parliament meets, perhaps in about two weeks. The constitution requires a meeting of the new parliament within 30 days of the election.
Earlier today he had said that the country "cannot permit a gap between prime ministers." His remarks, while appearing to rule out any immediate resignation, left open the question of what he may do when the new, 511-member parliament meets.
The election left neither his Liberal Democratic Party nor any existing coalition in a position to name the next prime minister of the world's No. 2 economic power alone.
But it gave seats to a new wave of young, reform-minded conservatives from parties that only formed this year, after years of continuous LDP scandals. They want to clean up a political system weighed down by corruption, business influence and bureaucrats who protect the LDP's corporate backers from foreign competitors.
The LDP may still be able to form a coalition government with other parties, but the nation will shift from the one-party rule that engineered Japan's economic success to its weakest government in decades.
Surveying the destruction voters wrought on the 38-year rule of the LDP, political commentators agreed on only one thought: At least one more election will be needed, perhaps within a year, to bring order out of the carnage.
Until then, Japan will be so preoccupied with its own political transformation that U.S. and European officials are likely to find it even harder to get attention to their complaints about Japan's unprecedented $110 billion annual trade surplus.
"Change is welcome and in time will prove to be good in separate ways for both Japanese and foreigners, but this will make the transition long and difficult for Japan's trade partners," a Western diplomat said as the returns took shape.
As expected, voters refused to give Mr. Miyazawa's LDP a majority in the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, for the first time since the LDP was formed in 1955.
New conservative but "reformist" parties leapt to prominence amid voter revulsion at LDP money scandals. The new lower house will have an unheard-of 134 first-time winners. Dozens are in their 20s and 30s, in a political milieu long defined by aged
leaders who have been all but impossible to unseat.
But the LDP handily remained the parliament's biggest single party, with a net loss of only four, to 223, from the 227 seats it had when the lower house was dissolved last month. Even as the biggest party, it is now well short of the 256 needed to choose a prime minister.
All-day mist and rain cut the turnout to a historic low of about 67 percent, compared with 73 percent in the 1990 lower house election.
The emerging forces gained not so much by beating the LDP as by trouncing the Socialists, who had dominated the country's opposition forces for more than three decades. The Socialists held 70 votes by early this morning, far fewer than the 134 they held in the previous chamber, much worse even than their previous record low of 85 in 1986.
LDP still has power
Most commentators agreed that, at first glance, the LDP appears much better positioned to name the next prime minister than any likely combination of its opponents, although it likely will have to cut deals with its foes, including at least some of the "reformists" who campaigned hardest against it.
LDP and coalition leaders jockeyed for new alignments late last night and into this morning, even before the final seats were decided.
The man in the catbird seat, Morihiro Hosokawa, head of the Japan New Party, played it close to the vest. He warned that the next prime minister may not be known until the new lower house holds its first meeting, at least two weeks from now.
"This election was about assuring that the LDP could not once again run things by itself, and that has been accomplished," Mr. Hosokawa said. "Now we have a blank sheet of paper. It would be a shame to mess it up by speculating too soon."
His party, running a slate laden with political novices and candidates in their 20s and 30s in its first election for the Diet's powerful lower house, won a stunning 35 seats. With 13 close allies elected by the Harbinger Party, also a newcomer but formed mainly of renegade "reformist" LDP Diet members, it has more than enough votes to put either the Liberal Democrats or the rival coalition into power.
Television cameras beamed the courtship of Mr. Hosokawa to viewers across the country whenever he and former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, leader of the new Renewal Party and de facto head of the opposition coalition, happened to be interviewed at the same time.
"Our goals for Japan are similar," Mr. Hata said. "Cooperation between the Japan New Party and us would be quite natural." Mr. Hata's party, which included 34 incumbents going into its first election, improved its strength to 55 in yesterday's vote.
Mr. Hosokawa's JNP and the Harbinger Party have said they plan to put up a joint candidate for prime minister when the Diet meets. Most speculation is that Mr. Hosokawa will be the candidate.
The two parties make no secret that they don't want to work with Mr. Hata and his Renewal Party's chief political guru, Ichiro Ozawa. Until last fall, Mr. Ozawa was the right-hand man of Shin Kanemaru, the LDP kingmaker whose arrest on tax-evasion charges in March brought decades of corruption scandals to a head and ignited the current political crisis.
But the two parties' leaders also have kept their own counsel on what they will do after the first ballot, which appears certain to end in a deadlock.
That reticence has prompted widespread speculation that the two allied parties will eventually vote for the LDP candidate, but without joining in a coalition cabinet, thereby retaining their freedom to force an election by bringing down the government virtually at will.
Most of that speculation assumes the two parties would use their swing position to demand "reforms" in the political system that the LDP has previously been unwilling or unable to enact.
Old-time politics survive
Amid all the new faces, the enduring power of old-time politics was amply demonstrated in a spectacular victory by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, a victim of both of the country's two biggest recent scandals. He was forced to resign amid the Recruit stocks-for-favors scandal of 1989 and has been at the center of some of Mr. Kanemaru's most embarrassing moments.
Fighting for political survival, Mr. Takeshita virtually abandoned Nagatacho, Tokyo's political center, to go home and campaign the old way, with money and personal favors, dispensed at the grass roots. He was rewarded with 160,000 votes, nearly triple the showing of the district's second-running candidate.
Former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone also was re-elected. And another name from the scandal-plagued past paid dividends against the "reformist" tide when Makiko Tanaka, 49, led the field as a conservative independent in her first run for the Diet.
She ran in the district once represented by her father, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, whose position as the most powerful politician in Japan was destroyed by the Lockheed bribery scandal of the 1960s.
Among Japan's traditional opposition parties, only the Buddhist-affiliated Komeito, or Clean Government Party, made significant gains.