TOKYO -- Japan awoke to political uncertainty today for the first time since 1955, after voters in yesterday's election trashed a 38-year-old party structure but created nothing to replace it.
Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa told reporters at a news conference today that he has not decided whether to resign, and that he faces no deadline until the new parliament meets, perhaps in about two weeks. The constitution requires a meeting of the new parliament within 30 days of the election.
Earlier today he had said that the country "cannot permit a gap between prime ministers." His remarks, while appearing to rule out any immediate resignation, left open the question of what he may do when the new, 511-member parliament meets.
The election left neither his Liberal Democratic Party nor any existing coalition in a position to name the next prime minister of the world's No. 2 economic power alone.
But it gave seats to a new wave of young, reform-minded conservatives from parties that only formed this year, after years of continuous LDP scandals. They want to clean up a political system weighed down by corruption, business influence and bureaucrats who protect the LDP's corporate backers from foreign competitors.
The LDP may still be able to form a coalition government with other parties, but the nation will shift from the one-party rule that engineered Japan's economic success to its weakest government in decades.
Surveying the destruction voters wrought on the 38-year rule of the LDP, political commentators agreed on only one thought: At least one more election will be needed, perhaps within a year, to bring order out of the carnage.
Until then, Japan will be so preoccupied with its own political transformation that U.S. and European officials are likely to find it even harder to get attention to their complaints about Japan's unprecedented $110 billion annual trade surplus.
"Change is welcome and in time will prove to be good in separate ways for both Japanese and foreigners, but this will make the transition long and difficult for Japan's trade partners," a Western diplomat said as the returns took shape.
As expected, voters refused to give Mr. Miyazawa's LDP a majority in the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, for the first time since the LDP was formed in 1955.
New conservative but "reformist" parties leapt to prominence amid voter revulsion at LDP money scandals. The new lower house will have an unheard-of 134 first-time winners. Dozens are in their 20s and 30s, in a political milieu long defined by aged
leaders who have been all but impossible to unseat.
But the LDP handily remained the parliament's biggest single party, with a net loss of only four, to 223, from the 227 seats it had when the lower house was dissolved last month. Even as the biggest party, it is now well short of the 256 needed to choose a prime minister.
All-day mist and rain cut the turnout to a historic low of about 67 percent, compared with 73 percent in the 1990 lower house election.
The emerging forces gained not so much by beating the LDP as by trouncing the Socialists, who had dominated the country's opposition forces for more than three decades. The Socialists held 70 votes by early this morning, far fewer than the 134 they held in the previous chamber, much worse even than their previous record low of 85 in 1986.
LDP still has power
Most commentators agreed that, at first glance, the LDP appears much better positioned to name the next prime minister than any likely combination of its opponents, although it likely will have to cut deals with its foes, including at least some of the "reformists" who campaigned hardest against it.
LDP and coalition leaders jockeyed for new alignments late last night and into this morning, even before the final seats were decided.
The man in the catbird seat, Morihiro Hosokawa, head of the Japan New Party, played it close to the vest. He warned that the next prime minister may not be known until the new lower house holds its first meeting, at least two weeks from now.
"This election was about assuring that the LDP could not once again run things by itself, and that has been accomplished," Mr. Hosokawa said. "Now we have a blank sheet of paper. It would be a shame to mess it up by speculating too soon."
His party, running a slate laden with political novices and candidates in their 20s and 30s in its first election for the Diet's powerful lower house, won a stunning 35 seats. With 13 close allies elected by the Harbinger Party, also a newcomer but formed mainly of renegade "reformist" LDP Diet members, it has more than enough votes to put either the Liberal Democrats or the rival coalition into power.
Television cameras beamed the courtship of Mr. Hosokawa to viewers across the country whenever he and former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, leader of the new Renewal Party and de facto head of the opposition coalition, happened to be interviewed at the same time.