Japanese premier may resign Voters reject his party in weekend elections for the parliament

'It is all my responsibility'

Result could increase disarray amid efforts to end economic crisis


TOKYO -- Voters in parliamentary elections yesterday gave Japan's governing party a drubbing, setting the stage for the resignation of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and creating uncertainties about the country's political and economic course.

"The results are attributable to my lack of ability," a grim Hashimoto told Japanese television early this morning. "We could not live up to the people's expectations, and it is all my responsibility."

He said that he would resign after meeting today with officials of his Liberal Democratic Party.

But while the voters were apparently punishing the government for its confusion and lack of decisiveness as it faces Japan's worst economic crisis in more than half a century, the election result may create more disarray than ever.

No one knows who will lead the country -- whose economy is second only to that of the United States in size -- as it tries to extricate itself from recession, or what will happen to Japan's recently announced plans to deal with its mountain of bad loans held by banks.

It will be harder than ever for the Liberal Democrats to govern Japan and push economic legislation through parliament.

None of the main contenders for the prime minister's job is the kind of new and dynamic leader that many Japanese say they want and that the United States and other countries desire. There is some risk that the job will go from a man who exhibited little leadership to a rival who has shown none.

But it is possible that the election shock may force the Liberal Democrats -- who have changed policy in the past in reaction to electoral defeat -- to become more aggressive in tackling the nation's economic problems.

There may be more likelihood of tax cuts and of another economic stimulus package, although it is not clear that there will be any push for the kind of market- oriented reorganization that many economists urge.

The elections were for the upper house of parliament, not the more important lower house, so they did not directly affect Hashimoto's post as prime minister or his party's lock on power. But he had billed the election as a referendum on his leadership, and the party won only 44 of the 126 seats up for election.

That was still far more than the 27 seats won by the leading opposition group, the Democratic Party, but far less than the 61 seats that the Liberal Democrats held going into the election.

Other seats were won by the Communists, who did exceptionally well as winners of protest votes, and by independents and other groups in Japan's deeply fragmented opposition.

The upheaval comes at an odd time in the Japanese political world, when the country is neither the one-party state it used to be nor a Western-style system where parties go in and out of power. The Liberal Democrats traditionally ran the country with only token opposition, but they were evicted from power in 1993 after a poor election performance and a series of defections by members of parliament.

At that time, many thought that old-style Japanese politics were gone forever, but a year later, the Liberal Democrats clawed their way back to power as part of a coalition. Then Hashimoto took over as prime minister in January 1996 and led the Liberal Democrats in a long slog in which they managed to regain majority control of the lower house of parliament, so that five years later the situation is much as it was before -- but with much less sense of expectation that the political system can be a vehicle for far-reaching change any time soon.

While yesterday's vote was an unambiguous rebuke of the Liberal Democrats, it is less clear whether it was a vote in favor of anything. By most accounts, the voters were simply annoyed by the Liberal Democrats' lack of strong leadership at a time of national economic crisis.

"The biggest reason is the lack of economic recovery," Taku Yamasaki, a Liberal Democratic leader, told NHK Television. Yamasaki said top party officials, including Hashimoto and himself, should resign, but he added that he worries about the impact on the economy.

"What if something happens like the collapse of a financial institution while our financial restructuring scheme is still unfinished?" Yamasaki mused. "I'm very worried about the power vacuum created by this election result."

Hashimoto had planned to go to Washington for a state visit this month, but said that would be called off until a new leader is in place. The Liberal Democrats will be under strong pressure to act within a week to choose a replacement, and probably to summon parliament into session so a new person can formally take the prime minister's post.

The main contenders are Keizo Obuchi, the foreign minister and leader of the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party; Seiroku Kajiyama, a veteran politician who was the chief Cabinet spokesman for a time under Hashimoto; Kiichi Miyazawa, a former prime minister; and Yohei Kono, who had been the Liberal Democratic leader until he resigned to make way for Hashimoto. Whoever takes over, fundamental changes are not expected.

Pub Date: 7/13/98

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