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Voters Opt for Stability, Not Reform : Japan: With the furor over taxes and corruption subsided, the electorate renews support for the ruling conservatives. : NEWS ANALYSIS


TOKYO — Japanese voters demonstrated a deeply conservative bent and a resilient commitment to national stability Sunday, shrugging off recent anger over taxes and political corruption to hand the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a decisive mandate to manage security ties and trade friction with the United States.

Although the top opposition Japan Socialist Party also fared relatively well in balloting for the lower house of Parliament, the message from the electorate appeared to be an overriding desire for continuity rather than uncertainty and change.

The Liberal Democrats and their conservative progenitors have ruled since 1948, without loosening their grip on Parliament until last July's electoral setback in the upper house, where they lost a simple majority.

Now, however, voters have reaffirmed the traditional view that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is the only party fit to govern.

"I think the LDP one-party rule has gone on far too long, but I guess there isn't much we can do about it," said Eiji Kikuchi, 36, a Tokyo photographer who pushed a baby carriage in the unseasonal sunshine as he and his wife left their polling place Sunday.

"Most people support the LDP because they're basically satisfied with the way things are," said Kikuchi, who voted for a Socialist candidate. "Japan is a very peaceful and prosperous place. We really don't have that many serious problems."

Behind the endorsement of the status quo was a grudging recognition among many Japanese that their democracy would be more vital--in principle--if the splintered opposition could reorganize itself and challenge the LDP in something akin to a two-party system.

But with the Socialists clinging to a controversial advocacy of gutting the U.S.-Japan security alliance, an amorphous distrust of the opposition seemed to loom large in the minds of the voters.

"It might not be a bad idea to have a change of leadership, but I don't care much for socialism," said Makoto Watanabe, 62, a civil servant who voted in an affluent neighborhood in Tokyo's Meguro ward, where driveways are dotted with Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes. "If you consider the international situation, the opposition's policies are obsolete. We have no choice but the LDP."

Strategically, opposition candidates misjudged electoral sentiment by centering their campaigns on vows to abolish a 3% consumption tax, which the LDP forced through Parliament and implemented last April. Resistance to the new tax, widely viewed as regressive and inflationary, was an opposition rallying point in last summer's upper house election. But results in the lower house poll suggest public rancor over the levy has cooled considerably.

Righteous indignation over political corruption also seems to have spent its fury. All the incumbents tainted by the Recruit Co. influence-peddling scandal, which rocked the government early last year, were returned to office by their constituents--including Takao Fujinami, a former LDP chief Cabinet secretary, who was indicted and faces trial on bribery charges.

Fujinami invoked the humble battle cry of misogi, or "purification," in his reelection bid, and the remission of his sins appears to have been extended to the ruling party as a whole.

"The Liberal Democrats may look corrupt from an international point of view, but they look pretty good from inside Japan," said Jiro Ito, 52, an auto mechanic voting in the working-class district of Shibamata, in Tokyo's Katsushika ward. "I'm staying with the Liberal Democrats because I want things to settle down."

Still, some key problems remained unresolved for the ruling party as the final votes were counted today. Although the LDP exceeded most expectations in holding on to a solid majority in the lower house, it still lost a number of seats from its pre-election strength. And it was still saddled with a minority in the upper house, which must approve all legislation except the budget.

The opposition-dominated upper house has flexed its muscles on a number of occasions since last summer, beginning with the symbolic nomination of Takako Doi, the Socialist chairwoman, as premier. The feisty chamber also passed a bill aimed at abolishing the consumption tax and could continue obstructionist tactics unless the LDP reins it in by forging some sort of coalition with the centrist Komeito (Clean Government Party).

Also uncertain is the fate of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, a caretaker with a clean image who was drafted by political bosses to lead the LDP out of its doldrums after corruption and sex scandals undermined the party's credibility last year. Political insiders say the Old Guard is preparing to unseat Kaifu this autumn when the party picks new leaders, and reassert control over statecraft, which has drifted during Kaifu's brief tenure.

In any event, Sunday's balloting gives the LDP a stronger hand to deal with pending international issues, most notably the protracted confrontation with the United States over economic relations.

Negotiations on bilateral trade and investment have been put on hold until after the election, but they are now scheduled to resume with urgency as an atmosphere of tension builds over the intractable $49-billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

On Thursday and Friday, officials will meet in Tokyo for the third round of the Structural Impediments Initiative, talks aimed at identifying and removing barriers to free trade. Washington is demanding that Japan take concrete action to dismantle market barriers by March. U.S. officials are also pushing for further liberalization of agricultural imports--including rice--to Japan, a contentious issue that has provoked a backlash among the LDP's traditional base of support in rural districts.

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