TOKYO — With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party facing defeat in the powerful lower house of Parliament for the first time in 38 years, Japan's voters went to the polls today to choose between stability and change.
In his final appeal to the voters Saturday, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa insisted that Japan would be thrown into chaos by any coalition "dragged around by the Socialists."
Former Liberal Democrat Morihiro Hosokawa, leader of the Japan New Party fighting its first lower-house battle, acknowledged that a defeat for the Liberal Democrats would create "an uncertain, unstable, fluid political situation." But he insisted that is the price that must be paid "for reforms that will give hope for the future."
Polls by Japan's major newspapers predicted that a split in Miyazawa's party would make it impossible for the conservative Liberal Democrats to win a majority in the lower house, which elects the prime minister. But an impending big defeat for the Socialists would deny an alliance of five opposition parties the strength it needs to form a coalition without the Liberal Democrats, the polls predicted.
Likely to wind up with the deciding vote are two new conservative groups--Hosokawa's Japan New Party and the New Party Harbinger, a band of rebels who defected from the ruling party after it squashed political reform last month. Both parties have refused to say whom they will support for prime minister.
As a result, the election results are not expected to immediately reveal what government or what leader will rule Japan.
Interviewed on TV, Miyazawa said that even if the Liberal Democrats do not win a majority, they will emerge as the largest party and, as such, "will have the responsibility to run the government." He suggested that the party could form a "policy agreement" with an opposition group and rule as a "minority government" without forming an official coalition.
Despite widespread speculation about Miyazawa's own political demise, he gave no indication that he intends to step down. His term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party does not expire until Sept. 30, and he is eligible to run for another two-year term. All parties traditionally nominate their own chieftains for prime minister.
The Liberal Democrats took 227 seats, 29 short of a majority, into the election, and any gain is likely to boost support to keep Miyazawa.
In addition to a one-party minority government headed by the Liberal Democrats, political analysts cited the possibility of three forms of coalition governments. One would be an alliance between the Liberal Democrats and the middle-of-the-road Democratic Socialist Party. The other two would be opposition-led coalitions.
Except for two short-lived coalitions in which the Socialists participated in 1947-48, Japan has never had a full-fledged coalition government.
Twice before--in 1980 and 1990--the Liberal Democrats went into elections teetering on the brink of defeat, but voters, fearing instability from a multi-party opposition coalition, went back into the conservative fold.
Polls detected a similar trend that was expected to enable the Liberal Democrats to increase their pre-election holdings, despite the sting of condemnation for corruption and failure to reform both themselves and politics in general.
But for the first time ever, three conservative parties that were expected to win about a fifth of the seats have emerged in the ranks of the opposition, and reform has taken a back seat to the "change or stability" issue in the campaign.
Miyazawa has declared that Japan would start having power blackouts if a coalition including the Socialists, who oppose nuclear power, come into office.
Foreign Minister Kabun Muto labeled as "insane" President Kim Il Sung, the leader of Communist North Korea with whom the Socialists maintain friendly relations, and branded his son, Kim Jong Il, a "weirdo." (A day later, he toned down the remarks.)
Muto's predecessor, Michio Watanabe, warned that a Liberal Democrat defeat would subject Japan to revolving-door changes of governments as in Italy.
Liberal Democrats also condemned Hosokawa's refusal to clarify Japan New Party policies and whom it would support for prime minister.
"Fuzzy logic may be fine in a refrigerator, but it's no good in a political party," snapped Shintaro Ishihara, who won fame in the United States with his book, "The Japan That Can Say No."