TOKYO -- Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's governing conservatives forged a thumping parliamentary victory yesterday in postwar Japan's lowest-ever election turnout.
Returns from voting for half the seats in the 252-member upper house of the Diet strengthened Mr. Miyazawa's drive to restore the politics-as-usual rule of old-line faction bosses in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
But the outcome was less a win for the Liberal Democrats than a failure of Japan's fragmented and internally rived opposition parties to tap into the scandal-weary people's steadily deepening disgust with all politicians.
The real message from the 93.7-million electorate may have come from the near-majority of registered voters who found no one worth a trip to the polls on the first official day of Japan's summer holiday season.
In the four decades since the U.S. occupation after World War II assured Japanese the right to vote in meaningful elections, yesterday was the first time voters stayed away en masse for a parliamentary election.
The turnout was 50.7 percent, the government reported. In a country where people still tend to take pride in good citizenship, the lowest previous turnout was 57 percent in 1983, also for an upper house election.
With about 97 percent of the votes counted early this morning, the governing Liberal Democrats had won 68 seats, to 58 for all opposition parties combined, Japanese television networks reported. One seat remained undecided.
LDP officials had publicly set their sights low to avoid embarrassment and said they would consider 64 seats a big boost to Mr. Miyazawa's once-shaky grip on power.
The prime minister has been struggling to consolidate his position ever since ousting his reform-minded predecessor, Toshiki Kaifu, in a party vote last fall. Mr. Kaifu had come to office as a "Mr. Clean" after the party suffered a humiliating defeat amid political-money scandals, losing control of one house of the parliament for the first time ever in the upper house election three years ago.
The Japanese Constitution requires elections every three years for 126 seats in the upper house, the House of Councillors. An additional vacancy brought the total yesterday to 127.
The goal of 64 seats was considered the minimum the LDP needed to position itself for a comeback in 1995, when the other half of the upper chamber is elected and when opposition parties will, for the first time ever, have more incumbents on the ballot than the LDP, which has ruled Japan since the mid-1950s.
Yesterday's win means the party will have to recruit smaller, middle-of-the-road opposition parties to help it get laws and budgets through the upper house, as it has been doing since losing the majority in 1989.
The big loser yesterday was Japan's biggest opposition, the Socialist party, which went into the election with 22 seats at stake. The Socialists, who made big advances in the 1989 upper house and 1990 lower house elections, had set out to increase that by at least several seats but secured only 22.
The Socialists started a losing trend in by-elections last year. The party has been consumed by internal turmoil for two years and threw out its charismatic chairwoman, Takako Doi, in favor of an opposition-as-usual septuagenarian man.
This year, instead of tapping into the economic and social worries that show up in all polls of voters, the Socialists stuck to their familiar role as a professional opposition.
They harangued voters on the LDP's adoption of a law to let up to 2,000 Japanese troops join United Nations peacekeeping operations.
As usual, light voting favored the campaign money-laden LDP, which was raking in well over 40 percent of the vote, compared with 30.7 in its 1989 humiliation amid much heavier turnout.
With 50 seats in each upper-house election decided by proportional representation, each party's overall national vote percentage is a key factor in the outcome.
Despite extensive publicity in North America, one of the parties that failed to ignite public imagination was the New Japan Party, headed by a diplomat-economist who returned from the United States talking of bringing his country "a new kind of politics." It won four seats, the TV networks reported.