Japan's governing coalition is dealt a setback in parliamentary elections


TOKYO -- Japanese voters pushed a new conservative opposition party to the forefront and dealt Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's Socialists and his ruling coalition a severe blow in upper house elections, election returns showed today. The blow, however, fell short of a knockout punch.

In a two-hour meeting in the middle of the night, Yohei Kono, the president of the one-time ruling Liberal Democratic Party that is now the major prop of Mr. Murayama's left-right coalition, asked the 71-year-old prime minister to stay on, and Mr. Murayama agreed.

Political analyst Soichiro Kawasaki predicted that Mr. Murayama, his own party stripped of its position as the second-largest political force in the upper house, will face increasing instability in running the government as elections for the lower house approach.

The balloting for that more powerful chamber, which elects the prime minister, is expected anytime between autumn and June.

Taking the Socialists' No. 2 spot in the upper house is the 7-month-old New Frontier Party. It more than doubled its seats in yesterday's vote and positioned itself to become the second conservative party -- after the Liberal Democrats -- in a two-party system of politics after decades of single-party domination and, only recently, coalition governments.

Until yesterday's election, Japanese voters had been forced to choose between the Liberal Democratic Party and the No. 2 Socialists. Few voters ever considered the Socialists a viable ruling force by themselves, and until political leader Ichiro Ozawa split up the old ruling party in 1993, the Liberal Democrats had enjoyed a monopoly on power since World War II.

This time, the New Frontier Party, with three former prime ministers among its ranks and Mr. Ozawa as its master strategist, offered a credible alternative -- and many of the disillusioned voters took it yesterday.

Only 44.52 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots.

It was the first time since the end of World War II that the turnout in any national election fell below 50 percent.

Although a typhoon was blowing through southern Japan, most of the nation was sunny, and families headed for the mountains and seashores -- rather than the ballot boxes -- on the first Sunday after schools closed for the summer.

The ruling coalition, as a whole, won 65 seats, a majority of only two among the 126 seats contested in yesterday's vote.

Mr. Murayama's Socialists won only 16, their worst showing ever in an upper house election. Their Liberal Democrat partners had 46 winners, 24 fewer than in the last elections.

New Party Harbinger, the third coalition member, picked up only three seats.

Including legislators not up for re-election, the three parties and unaffiliated lawmakers who support them still control 153 seats, or a comfortable majority of 27 seats in the 252-member chamber.

The upper house approves all legislation except the budget and treaties.

With 40 seats, the big winner was the New Frontier Party, patched together in December from the remnants of Liberal Democrat defectors and other parties that supported the self-styled "reform government" of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa.

Most surprising, the Frontier's popular vote surpassed the Liberal Democrats' by 1.5 million in the proportional representation contests, in which voters wrote by hand the name of a political party on their ballots.

Frontier also got 400,000 more votes than the Liberal Democrats in district elections throughout the country.

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