Japan's ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, stung by a voters tax revolt, suffered unexpected losses at the polls yesterday and failed to achieve its goal of a comfortable working majority in the parliament's lower House.
Nearly final returns counted by late this morning indicated the LDP would fall far short of the 271-seat target fixed by Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira as necessary to assure passage of vital legislation.
It appeared likely that the LDP would fail to win even the simple majority of 256 seats and could attain minimal control of the lower House only by inducing about 10 conservative independents to join its ranks. The LDP held a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives going into the election.
A dismayed Ohira this morning conceded to reporters that his campaign victory celebration at party headquarters was cancelled abruptly.
With returns from 495 districts counted, the LDP had won 240 and the remaining constituencies were in urban areas where the ruling party rarely does well.
The partial returns available early today showed the LDP running considerably behind predictions of many newspaper surveys and political commentaries, most of which had confidently projected a sizable majority.
The election did nothing to help Ohira, who had hoped for a 271-seat "stable majority" in the 511-seat chamber. He had wanted a big victory to solidify his own position when he runs for reelection next year as president of his party and prime minister.
Ohira's personal advocacy of a major tax increase next year may have accounted for his party's poor showing although he ultimately tried to disavow the tax increase when its unpopularity became apparent.
A major surprise was the unexpectedly large number of seats won by the Japan Communist Party. It picked up 16 seats in the preliminary tabulation, including several from conservative areas where it is weakest, and seemed well on its way to winning nearly 40. In the last election three years ago, the Communists won only 17 seats.
Many Japanese in the past have voted for Communist candidates as a kind of protest against the ruling Liberal Democrats and as a way of assuring some kind of check on the LDP in the parliament.
The main opposition party, the Socialist, was suffering a decline, as anticipated. It seemed likely to win no more than 110 seats, 13 less than it won in the last lower house election three years ago.
The minor opposition parties generally remained at their former strength with the exception of the Democratic Socialists, a party that had split away from the Socialists. It seemed likely to win a larger bloc of seats than the 29 it won in the last election.
The voter turnout was one of the smallest in Japan's postwar history, with only about 68 percent of the eligible electorate going to the polls. Although that is nearly twice the usual turnout for an American congressional election, it is the smallest parliamentary turnout in Japan since 1947.
One reason for the poor turnout may have been the strong winds and heavy rains that lashed large parts of Japan. But many observers blamed it on an increasingly apathetic electorate turned off by a lack of serious issues.
The outcome meant that Ohira and his party leaders in the lower house must continue the pattern of negotiations with opposition parties over virtually every major piece of legislation, the obstacle that Ohira had hoped to avoid.
A total of 271 seats would have meant that the LDP would control a comfortable floor majority and all of the 16 major committees. That goal seemed out of reach. The results mean that key fiscal legislation to be introduced in the next session must be modified to win approval of some opposition leaders.