Amid lower-than-expected voter turnout, the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling triumvirate appeared to have secured at least a simple majority in the Lower House in the general election held Sunday, exit polls show.

The results indicate that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, despite low public support for his Cabinet in earlier media surveys, would most likely hold on to his post and host Group of Eight summit in Okinawa next month.

Exit polls by commercial TV stations released right after polling stations closed at 8 p.m. showed Mori’s LDP winning about 230 to 250 of the 480 seats contested — compared with 271 seats the party had in the 500-seat chamber before it was dissolved.

For the LDP’s coalition allies, New Komeito was estimated to have won around 30 seats, while the New Conservative Party scored five to 10 seats, exit polls showed.

The LDP, New Komeito and NCP combined were thus estimated to have won 265 to 290 out of the 480 seats in the lower chamber, although exit polls by Kyodo News and NHK TV put the number much lower.

Early vote counts showed the LDP won 81 of the 120 seats whose results were known by 9 p.m. Sunday.

Meanwhile, the TV stations’ exit polls showed the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, won 120 to 130 seats — far above the 95 seats it had before the Lower House was dissolved but still a far cry from the ruling alliance.

Voter turnout was sluggish amid poor weather nationwide — a factor that apparently helped the LDP and New Komeito, which are believed to rely heavily on organized votes.

As of 6 p.m., an estimated 48.95 percent of voters throughout Japan had cast votes, down 7.76 percentage points from the corresponding time during the previous election in 1996, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.

Kyodo News estimated, however, that the final turnout would reach 63.1 percent.

In the 1996 election, total voter turnout hit a record-low 59.65 percent.

It was either rainy or cloudy throughout most of Japan, except in sunny Hokkaido, evidently discouraging people — especially the unaffiliated — from going to the polls.

“This election, the final general election of this century, is crucial because it will decide Japan’s direction for the 21st century,” Mori told reporters in the morning in Tokyo. “I would like to solemnly wait for the citizens’ judgment.”

The election pitted the tripartite ruling bloc 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.”

However, preliminary results of the election show that the opposition camp failed to take advantage of public discontent with the Mori Cabinet.

New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki said after casting his vote in Fukuoka in the morning, “Support for our coalition has greatly increased in the last stage of the campaign. I’m pretty confident that voters have realized the current coalition is the only choice.”

DPJ chief Yukio Hatoyama said after casting his vote in his home constituency in Muroran, Hokkaido, “I’m sure everybody felt that this morning was not a time for sleeping and went to the polling stations because of the remark made by Prime Minister Mori.”

Mori came under fire from the opposition camp after saying Tuesday that he hopes undecided voters will “remain uninterested in the election and sleep through it,” referring to media opinion polls that suggested the LDP appears likely to secure a majority in the Lower House.

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 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 Japanese Communist Party entered 332 and the Liberal Party 75. The Social Democratic Party 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 — LDP Secretary General Hiromu 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 that the impact of the 20 seats cuts from the lower chamber would be equally divided among the LDP and other parties.

The targets are 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.

Nonaka and other LDP leaders have also indicated that the Mori Cabinet would obtain a vote of confidence if the three coalition parties win 254 seats.

But newspaper opinion polls released last week indicated that the coalition would surpass this goal. The polls showed the coalition was well on its way to securing a stable majority, although they also forecast that a high percentage of voters — between 30 percent and 50 percent — were still undecided.

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 that 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 whether the DPJ, for example, is ready to form a coalition with the the JCP.

Same names, new faces

Exit polls Sunday indicated that Yuko Obuchi, the second daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, was certain to be elected in her father’s Gunma No. 5 constituency.

Polls showed that Obuchi, 26, had built up a large lead over her closest rival, Tsuruo Yamaguchi, the former Social Democratic Party secretary general.

Yamaguchi retired from politics in 1996, but decided to run after learning that Yuko Obuchi — whom he described as inexperienced in the world of politics — wanted to run to keep her father’s seat.

“Today, June 25, is the 63rd birthday of my father, Keizo, and I think this result is the best birthday present I could have given him,” Obuchi told her supporters.

Meanwhile, in the Shimane No.2 constituency, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who died earlier this month, also seemed assured of a win.

Wataru Takeshita, 53, was an aide to his older brother for many years, but had been relatively unknown among voters, even in an electoral district dubbed the “Takeshita Kingdom” for the popularity of Noboru Takeshita.

His closest rival was DPJ candidate Atsushi Nishikori, who put up a good fight against Noboru Takeshita in the 1996 general election.

The exit polls also showed that Hiroshi Kajiyama, son of former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, was also on top in the race for the Ibaraki No. 4 constituency.

The elder Kajiyama also died earlier this month.