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Japanese hold crucial legislative election today

An unusually hard-fought election campaign ended Saturday with most opinion surveys indicating that the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu would win a slim majority of seats in the lower house of the Japanese Parliament. A narrow victory in the voting today would sharply reduce the ruling party's power in Parliament, but it would still constitute an extraordinary comeback for Japan's long-entrenched political establishment after a year of scandal, leadership crises and voter anger over an unpopular sales tax.

The final voter surveys also showed that the Japan Socialist Party would increase its number of seats in the lower house but would probably fall short of its goal of leading a governing coalition of opposition parties.

The Socialists won the election last July to the less-powerful upper house of Parliament, but it is the lower house that approves the budget and determines which party controls the government and names the prime minister.

Kaifu wound up the election Saturday afternoon by repeating his theme that voters had to choose between "democracy and socialism."

Takako Doi, the Socialist leader, again called on voters to bring an end to what she said was nearly four decades of "one-party rule" in Japan.

There are 953 candidates from six major political parties running for 512 seats in 130 lower-house constituencies.

But the opinion surveys suggested that the ruling party, which has held power since 1955, would win from 260 to 280 seats, enough to form the next government.