The Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling triumvirate suffered a major setback but secured a majority in the Lower House in the general election held Sunday.
Still, several leading members of the LDP and its allies indicated that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori would probably keep his post as long as the tripartite alliance remains a majority force in the lower chamber.
Mori told 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 214 of the 405 seats whose results were known by 12:30 a.m. Monday, while the Democratic Party of Japan had already exceeded its pre-election strength of 95 to reach 105.
The LDP’s two allies New Komeito and the New Conservative Party won 24 and seven seats, respectively, putting the coalition total at 245. The alliance had 336 out of the 500 seats before the election.
The LDP, New Komeito and NCP combined have thus won at least a simple majority in the 480-seat lower chamber, although it was not clear if they had attained their target of securing a comfortable majority that would ensure smooth Diet proceedings for the coalition.
Other opposition parties were mixed. As of 12:30 a.m., the Japanese Communist Party, which had a pre-election strength of 26 seats, won 12 seats, while the Liberal Party won 13, compared with 18 before the election. The Social Democratic Party won 12, vs. its pre-election strength of 14.
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.
However, the final turnout 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 tripartite ruling bloc, which con trolled 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.
Mori also said that even if the LDP fails to achieve the goal of winning 229 seats, Hiromu Nonaka, party secretary general, should stay in the post.
“As long as I remain as party president, I want Mr. Nonaka’s continued cooperation,” Mori said.
Nonaka reiterated earlier in the day that he would step down as secretary general if the LDP fails to win at least 229 seats.
But Nonaka said Mori does not need to resign even if the LDP fails to win 229 seats.
Takami Eto, chairman of the LDP faction led by himself and Shizuka Kamei, said Sunday night that if the ruling coalition secures a simple majority in the Lower House, both Mori and Nonaka should stay on in their current posts.
Junichiro Koizumi, chairman of the LDP faction led by Mori, also said Mori should remain as party president and prime minister if the ruling coalition captures a simple majority.
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.
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 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 the Mori Cabinet would obtain a vote of confidence if the three ruling parties win 254 seats.
After the vote counts started Sunday night, Nonaka as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki indicated that Mori will not have to step down even if the LDP falls short of its 229-seat target.
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.