Voters will cast ballots for both houses of Japan's Parliament on Sunday, and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's Liberal Democratic Party is expected to retain control of the powerful lower house. His own political future, however, is not so clear.
The campaign, which has been marked by widespread apathy, has focused almost entirely on Nakasone himself. The 68-year-old prime minister is hoping to rebound from the humiliation of December, 1983, when the party suffered its worst setback ever, losing 36 seats in the lower house.
This time, Nakasone has declared that he wants an impressive victory so that he can "go out with a flourish" and leave his successor feeling obliged to continue his policies. They include changing Japan's export-oriented economy to one more dependent on domestic consumer demand; trimming government bureaucracy; slashing the public debt, and reforming the post-World War II education system.
Nakasone's term as head of the Liberal Democratic Party expires Oct. 30, and it would take a change of party rules to permit him to seek another term. Under the Japanese parliamentary system, the leader of the party with the most seats in the lower house becomes prime minister.
Needs a Landslide
With a lot of luck and a much bigger victory than is likely, the "flourish" that Nakasone is seeking might bring about such a change in party rules. However, the stipulation that two-thirds of the party's members of Parliament must approve any rule change makes the possibility of an extension of Nakasone's term remote unless he achieves a landslide victory.
Opposition parties and even rivals in his own party have charged that Nakasone ordered a dissolution of the lower house to make the election for it coincide with the triennial election for the upper house. They contend that the move was a bid to boost voter turnout, gain more seats and keep himself in office.
Major opinion polls conducted by the mass media have agreed on two points: that the Liberal Democrats, who have ruled since 1955, are a shoo-in to retain control of the largely ceremonial upper house and to increase their seats in the lower house.
The big question is how much the increase will be.
Any total short of the 271 seats needed to control all standing committees in the lower house is unlikely to stir movement to keep Nakasone in office beyond October.
News Bad for Nakasone
Bad news for the charismatic premier, who prides himself on his first-name "Ron-and-Yasu" relationship with President Reagan, proliferated after he dissolved the lower house June 2.
His Economic Planning Agency announced in the middle of the campaign that Japan, between January and March, suffered the first decline in its gross national product in 11 years, a 2.1% downturn at an annual rate. The setback was blamed on the recent sharp appreciation of the yen, which has cut deeply into profits of exporting firms.
On Friday, trading on the Tokyo Foreign Exchange Market added another blow to Nakasone's hopes, as the yen closed at 160.90 to the dollar, the second-highest closing price ever. The price also was a hair's-breadth away from the all-time peak of 159.99 yen to the dollar, recorded as a momentary high on May 12.
Friday's closing brought the yen's appreciation to 50.4% since last Sept. 22, when Japan joined four other advanced nations, including the United States, in agreeing to push down the value of the dollar.
More ominous was a Yomiuri newspaper poll showing that Nakasone's popularity had plummeted in one month by an unprecedented 13.5 percentage points, to 41%, on the eve of the election. The Yomiuri attributed the plunge to criticism of Nakasone for denying that he would dissolve the lower house and then going ahead to do it, and to suspicion that a large-scale indirect tax system might be enacted after the election.
Another ominous sign for Nakasone was widespread reports of voter apathy detected in all of the major polls by the mass media. The newspaper Tokyo Shimbun said that the voter turnout could change the outcome for as many as 20 Liberal Democrat candidates. Asahi reported that apathy was so great that many voters in large cities refused to be interviewed for its nationwide poll.
Never before have the Liberal Democrats gone into a lower house election as a minority party. Three years ago, however, in the aftermath of the conviction of former prime minister and party leader Kakuei Tanaka for accepting a $1.8-million bribe from the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. during his l972-74 term in office, the Liberal Democrats managed to win a majority of only two seats, including conservatives who joined the party after winning without its endorsement. Since then, however, the conservatives' ranks have been thinned by deaths.
When the lower house was dissolved, they held only 250 seats, seven fewer than will be needed for a majority in the expanded 512-seat lower house, which elects the prime minister.
Only by virtue of a mini-coalition with the eight-member New Liberal Club has the party retained precarious control.