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Ruling party retains control in Japan vote

Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a mandate to extend its 35-year grip on power with a solid victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections, according to final returns. The conservative LDP, which has ruled Japan since the party was formed in 1955, fought off what party leaders said was their toughest electoral challenge ever after a year of scandal and political turbulence.

The results appeared to confound the predictions of many who had said Japan's political landscape was headed for a revolutionary overhaul.

The party lost some seats in the nationwide elections but won enough to retain a majority in the powerful 512-seat lower house of the Japanese parliament, or Diet.

The LDP and a few conservative independents had won 289 seats, a majority of 33 in the lower house, the chamber that chooses the prime minister, against 141 for the fractured opposition and its affiliates.

LDP Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa said Sunday night that Japanese voters did not trust the opposition parties, which had promised to form a coalition government if the LDP failed to win a majority.

"This decade of the '90s is going to be a very hard period for Japan in the international community," Ozawa said. "The people felt quite fearful of this coalition government, that it might not be able to navigate Japan through these difficult times."

The Japan Socialist Party, led by chairwoman Takako Doi, scored substantial gains. But other opposition parties lost ground, ending for now Doi's hopes of leading a coalition to become Japan's first Socialist prime minister since 1948, and its first female leader ever.

Instead, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, 59, whom the LDP installed last summer because of his clean image, seems likely to keep his job. Even with the LDP victory, however, he may face a challenge from older power brokers within his party, all of whom bounced back from scandal to win re-election.

Celebrating his victory Sunday night, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, like other leaders tainted by the Recruit stock-and-bribery scandal, said he considered himself exonerated and ready to reassume a leadership position.

"The general election is the highest judgment of the people, and it's the final judgment," said Nakasone, 71, who campaigned like a first-time candidate to win office for the 17th time. "So I think the case has been closed."

The opposition controls the upper house of the Diet, which is weaker than the lower house. Still, that augurs some instability despite the LDP's win. Although the lower house chooses the prime minister and can pass a budget alone, the LDP will have to compromise with at least some elements of the opposition to pass other legislation.

The election result was likely to be welcomed by Japan's bureaucracy and big-business community and privately by the Bush administration because the Socialists oppose many aspects of the U.S-Japan alliance.

With the election over, the U.S. administration is expected to push hard on a number of pending disputes beginning this week, when Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and several high-ranking trade officials are expected here for talks.

The election had been billed as the left-leaning opposition's best chance to seize power since the LDP was formed. It was only last summer that the LDP lost control of the upper house for the first time, and opposition parties vowed to repeat that Sunday.

Voters were angry at the LDP for three major reasons: a new 3 percent sales tax despised by many consumers; a farm policy that many viewed as kowtowing to U.S. pressure to open markets; and influence-peddling and sex scandals that forced two LDP prime ministers to resign last year and left the party with an image as arrogant and corrupt.

While polls showed many voters still angry, the LDP this time fought back more effectively. It outspent the opposition, dunning big business for hundreds of millions of dollars and reportedly spending more than $1-billion in the 15-day campaign.

The LDP also emphasized its role in bringing Japan three decades of economic prosperity and political stability and sought to identify the Socialists with the failed communist governments of Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the five chief opposition parties, ranging from the centrist Democratic Socialists to the Japan Communist Party, failed to seize the opportunity presented by the LDP's troubles, many analysts said. They could not unite on a platform, running simply on their standard position of opposing the LDP.

"They failed to present a clear picture," Ozawa said.

Japan Socialist chairwoman Doi also said that unlike in upper-house elections, many voters cast their lower-house ballots on the basis of longstanding village and family ties, considering mostly who could deliver the most benefit to their local region.

Virtually every top LDP figure implicated in the Recruit scandal was re-elected Sunday. In addition to Nakasone, who had left the LDP after he became known as the "big evil" at the center of the scandal, victors included former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who had to resign because of the scandal last April, and former Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

Also re-elected was Shintaro Abe, 65, a former foreign minister who had stepped back from his role as an LDP faction leader because his aide received unlisted stock from the Recruit Cosmos company. Abe is said to be eager to shoulder Kaifu aside and take his turn as prime minister.

Takao Fujinami, presently on trial for his role in the Recruit scandal, also was re-elected from his district, as was former Prime Minister Sosuke Uno, who had to resign as prime minister last summer after a former geisha said she had been his mistress.