Japan in quandary over choice at polls Tomorrow's vote offers reformists confusing options

July 17, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

OMIYA, Japan -- For decades, millions of Japanese voters have wished they could vote for some conservative party besides the Liberal Democrats, who have governed here since 1955.

Tomorrow, they face a bewilderment of riches, not one new alternative, but three. And there are strong indications that it may take another election -- possibly as soon as a year from now -- before the political landscape is settled.

For a lot of voters, the sudden wealth of self-proclaimed "reform" choices with conservative inclinations, with the sense that there may be a chance of change at last, is making it hard to decide what to do in an election that could reshape Japan's political structure for the first time in 38 years.

"I'll definitely vote, and I'll vote for anybody but the LDP, but I still haven't decided who it will be," Yoshiko Imasato said this week.

"I want a change, but it's hard to decide which of the new parties willreally follow through," she said.

Like Ms. Imasato, a 29-year-old office worker, millions of Japanese voters are showing signs of confusion.

Their confusion is producing poll results that suggest little chance of any clear winner and equally little chance of any stable government coming out of tomorrow's election.

For Japanese voters, the immediate future appears to be a period of uncertain governance, probably leading to another election in a year or so.

For Japan's U.S. and other trade partners, the prospect appears to be a time of even more frustration in seeking Japanese political leadership to resolve disputes growing out of this country's unprecedented trade surpluses, which are expected to mushroom beyond $150 billion this year.

Final-week polls show Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's governing Liberal Democrats at an all-time low in pre-election popularity, favored by barely 25 percent of the voters polled in some tallies.

The LDP's long-time whipping boy, the Socialists, also are at all-time lows and are expected to be by far the biggest losers tomorrow.

But voters are declining to give a clear lead to any of the three new conservative parties that are making their first runs for the powerful lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament.

Polls show 6 percent to 7 percent of the vote going to each of the stronger two and about 2 percent to the third.

Leading the "reform" ranks are the year-old Japan New Party, a collection mainly of local and national political celebrities and political novices, and the month-old Japan Renewal Party, formed mainly of battle-tested Dietmen who broke with the LDP last month when its leaders reneged on their promises to rewrite the election laws.

Voters' difficulties in settling on one of the "reformist" forces appeared to be strengthening Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's governing but beleaguered LDP.

Late polls show the LDP very slowly reclaiming some of the vote, despite widespread public revulsion since March, when Shin Kanemaru, its top kingmaker, was arrested and charged with evading income taxes on tens of millions of dollars in political funds found in his houses and offices.

District-by-district analyses by newspapers and TV networks suggest that the LDP may yet cling to, and perhaps slightly improve, the 227-seat strength it took into the election. The LDP had held a commanding 274 seats, but scores of "reformist" defectors walked out to form new parties after joining the opposition-sponsored June 18 no-confidence vote that forced tomorrow's election.

The newspaper and TV tallies suggest that for the first time since it was founded in 1955, the LDP may end up well short of the 256 seats needed to govern without help from any other party.

But that outcome also appeared likely to leave the only potential anti-LDP coalition well short of the votes needed to gain the prime ministry for its expected candidate, former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata of the Japan Renewal Party.

The swing position would then belong to the Japan New Party.

Its leaders repeatedly have said they won't support any coalition that makes Mr. Hata prime minister. They make no secret of their distaste for the Japan Renewal Party's chief political wizard, Ichiro Ozawa, who was until last fall Mr. Kanemaru's right-hand man.

They also swear they'll never join a coalition that includes the LDP. But they evade answering questions about voting for an LDP prime minister while staying out of the Cabinet.

Miyazawa not counted out

In that evasion, many analysts are now finding the unexpected -- a chance that the LDP, which seems certain to remain the Diet's biggest single party, may yet form a one-party Cabinet, albeit one that would be dependent on votes from the Japan New Party and perhaps a splinter party or two.

Even more unexpected is a possibility that the next prime minister may yet turn out to be Mr. Miyazawa, whose political obituaries were widely published after the June 18 no-confidence vote.

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