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The Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling triumvirate suffered a major setback but managed to secure a comfortable majority in the Lower House in Sunday’s general election.

Several leading members of the LDP and its allies indicated that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori would keep his post, even though the LDP alone appears to have lost a simple majority in the powerful lower chamber amid low popular support for the Mori Cabinet.

Mori said in a TV interview that he plans to hold a special Diet session as early as July 4 to launch his new Cabinet.

The LDP won 229 of the 465 seats whose results were known by 1:30 a.m. today — compared with its pre-election strength of 271.

In contrast, the Democratic Party of Japan secured 124 seats — far above its pre-election strength of 95.

The LDP’s two allies — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — won 28 and seven seats, respectively, putting the coalition’s total at 264, above the 254 they sought as a “comfortable majority.” The alliance had 336 out of the 500 seats in the Lower House before the election.

The ruling coalition thus has acquired a comfortable majority in the 480-seat lower chamber, enough to ensure smooth Diet proceedings for the coalition.

Results for other opposition parties were mixed. As of 1 a.m., the Japanese Communist Party, which had a pre-election strength of 26 seats, had won 18, while the Liberal Party had won 21, compared with 18 before the election. The Social Democratic Party won 17, matching its pre-election strength.

At least 25 women won seats in the Lower House, the highest number under the current Constitution. The previous high was 23 in 1996.

Two former members of Mori’s Cabinet — trade chief Takashi Fukaya and farm chief Tokuichiro Tamazawa — were defeated in their constituencies in Tokyo and Iwate prefectures.

Meanwhile, two convicted bribe-taking lawmakers — former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takao Fujinami and former Construction Minister Kishiro Nakamura — won re-election as independents in the Mie and Ibaraki constituencies, respectively.

Voter turnout was sluggish amid poor weather nationwide. It was either rainy or cloudy throughout most of Japan, except in sunny Hokkaido, evidently discouraging people — especially the so-called “floating” voters, those without any party loyalty — from going to the polls.

The final turnout including absentee ballots, however, was estimated to have reached 63.16 percent, up from the 59.65 percent in the 1996 election but still the second-lowest in history.

The election pitted the ruling bloc, which controlled around 70 percent of the Lower House seats before the election, against the various opposition parties calling for a change in government.

Mori, who took over as prime minister in April after the collapse of his predecessor, the late Keizo Obuchi, entered the race just as public support for his Cabinet was declining sharply due to a series of gaffes, including his controversial remark last month that Japan is a “divine nation centering on the Emperor.”

“I humbly accept the judgment of the voters,” Mori said in a Sunday night TV interview, adding that he is fully aware of the public’s criticism of him.

Takami Eto, chairman of the LDP faction led by himself and Shizuka Kamei, said Sunday night that both Mori and LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka should stay on in their current posts now that the coalition has secured a majority. Junichiro Koizumi, chairman of the LDP faction led by Mori, also said Mori should remain as party president and prime minister.

Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, New Komeito party secretary general, also said in a TV program Sunday night that if the LDP decides to keep Mori as LDP president and prime minister, New Komeito will have to back Mori.

New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki and New Conservative Party leader Chikage Ogi also said Sunday night that they will support Mori’s continued prime ministership if the three ruling parties win a simple majority.

However, DPJ leaders said the ruling coalition should take the election result as a no-confidence vote from the public.

“While the ruling parties won a combined majority, it is also true that they suffered losses from their pre-election strength. That means voters issued a tough verdict on the LDP-led alliance,” DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama said.

Naoto Kan, DPJ policy-affairs chief, urged Mori and Nonaka to step down.

Voting began at 7 a.m. at most polling stations and continued until 8 p.m. — two hours longer than in the last Lower House election. Official results for most of the seats were expected to be known by early today.

A total of 1,404 candidates vied for 480 seats — 300 for single-seat constituencies and 180 through proportional representation. The number of seats up for grabs was cut by 20 from 500 due to electoral reforms.

The LDP registered 337 candidates for the race, while New Komeito fielded 74 and the NCP 19.

The DPJ registered 262, while the JCP entered 332 and the Liberal Party 75. The SDP entered 76 candidates.

The total number of eligible voters was 107 million — a record high.

The focus of the vote was on whether the ruling coalition could secure a stable majority of 254 seats, which would give the ruling bloc at least the same number of seats as the opposition in all Lower House standing committees and the power to chair them.

If the coalition wins 269 seats, it will enjoy a majority force in all the standing committees while also holding the posts of chairman.

Attention was also focused on how many seats the LDP alone could gain — Nonaka, the party’s No. 2 man, had set the goal at 229 seats — 10 seats fewer than the 239 seats the LDP won in the 1996 election. He was assuming the impact of the 20-seat cuts from the chamber would be equally divided among the LDP and other parties.

The targets were well below the number of seats the tripartite coalition controlled prior to the dissolution of the lower chamber on June 2. At that time, the coalition held 336 seats, 271 of which were held by the LDP.

In its election campaign, the ruling coalition said it will carry on the policies of Obuchi, who died May 14 after being comatose for six weeks, and continue economic steps aimed at putting Japan’s economy — which posted 0.5-percent growth in fiscal 1999 after two years of contraction — firmly on a sustainable growth path.

The opposition meanwhile criticized the ruling bloc for trying to spend its way out of the recession while sacrificing the nation’s fiscal health, and called for structural reforms.

Opposition parties were also critical of Mori for saying Japan is “a divine nation with the Emperor at its center,” charging that the remark runs counter to the Constitution, which says that sovereign power rests with people. Critics said the comment echoed the ideology that drove Japan’s wartime militarism.

Mori meanwhile blamed the opposition camp for failing to provide a viable alternative to the ruling coalition, raising the question of whether the DPJ, for example, is ready to form a coalition with the JCP.

Newspaper surveys released last week were predicting an easy victory for the coalition, qualified by the possibility that the substantial portion of unaffiliated voters would hold the key to final results.

Sunday’s exit poll by Kyodo News of about 120,000 voters at 1,821 polling stations throughout the country indicated a large portion of unaffiliated voters cast their ballots for the DPJ in the proportional representation section, contributing to the sharp gains of the main opposition party.

According to the Kyodo poll, voters who had not made decisions in earlier polls accounted for 18.8 percent of the voters and 35.5 percent of these voters supported the DPJ in the election. The LDP secured only 14.6 percent of these voters.

The JCP captured the vote of 13.4 percent of unaffiliated voters, followed by the SDP with 10.9 percent, the Liberal Party with 10.5 percent and New Komeito with 6.8 percent.

NTT deal U.S. priority

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) With the end of Sunday’s general election in Japan, the United States is giving priority to settlement of its long-standing dispute with Japan over interconnection fees charged by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., a U.S. government official said.

The official said the U.S. wants to resolve the dispute with Japan before the July 21-23 summit of the Group of Eight major powers in Okinawa.

The official expressed guarded optimism that Japan would continue its economic stimulus program, indicating expectations that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori would remain in power.

Washington also seeks headway on the issue of Japan’s host-nation support for U.S. troops stationed in Japan ahead of a Japan-U.S. summit, which will be held before the Okinawa summit, the official added.

Urbanites snub LDP

Urban voters indicated their desire for a change in Sunday’s general election, favoring the Democratic Party of Japan while abandoning the Liberal Democratic Party and its two coalition allies.

Demonstrating the inroads it has made in urban areas, the DPJ, the largest opposition party, looked to have won the No. 1 through No. 5 constituencies in Aichi Prefecture — all the five constituencies in Nagoya.

In Tokyo, the DPJ seems to be leading the LDP in proportional seats — those in which voters choose their favored party rather than an individual candidate.

The favorable result for the DPJ came despite the ruling bloc’s avoidance of fielding competing candidates in single-seat constituencies.

As of late Sunday night, setbacks in urban areas had added uncertainty to the LDP’s prospects of securing a Lower House majority on its own, while its key coalition partner, New Komeito, also appeared to have suffered substantial losses in its urban seats.