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Japan’s Ruling Party Could Lose Majority : Liberal Democrats Face Crucial Test in Election for Upper House

Times Staff Writer

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party could lose its majority while being outstripped by the Socialist Party in seats at stake in a crucial election next Sunday for the upper house of Parliament, the semi-governmental radio and TV network NHK reported Sunday night.

The broadcaster said that nearly half of the 40,000 voters it sampled throughout Japan on July 8-9 still had not made up their minds.

But it said that opposition candidates backed by the Socialist Party and by the Rengo Assn., a coalition of four opposition parties formed by the new national labor federation, Rengo, threatened to sweep traditional ruling party farm strongholds in both northeastern Japan and on the island of Shikoku.

Opposition Is Weak

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Not a single opposition candidate has been elected in any of the five prefectures (states) of northeastern Japan or in any of the four prefectures in Shikoku in the last four upper house elections, dating back to 1974.

The forecast came a day after Ryutaro Hashimoto, secretary general of the ruling party, conceded that the conservatives’ best hope was to emerge from the election with just a plurality in the House of Councillors, where all bills except the national budget and treaties must be approved.

On Friday, the Asahi Newspaper said a poll it conducted showed that only 21% of the voters would cast ballots for the ruling party, although, it, too, reported that a large proportion--40%--still had not made up their minds.

Half of the seats in the 252-member chamber are at stake. Going into the election, the Liberal Democrats held 143 seats, or a majority of 17.

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NHK predicted that the Socialist Party was likely to win more of the seats at stake next Sunday than the Liberal Democrats. Because 73 conservatives are not up for reelection, such a result would still leave the Liberal Democrats with a plurality. Nonetheless, it would be an unprecedented setback.

Past Threats to Its Majority

Since the ruling party was formed in 1955, its majorities in both houses of Parliament have been threatened in a number of elections, but it has never lost control of either chamber.

Embattled by a yearlong influence-buying scandal and voter rage over its implementation of a 3% consumption tax, the ruling party found itself the target of new anger, particularly among women voters, when a series of sex-for-money arrangements by Prime Minister Sosuke Uno came to light after he took office June 2.

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Uno was chosen as a “Mr. Clean” reformer to replace former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who resigned after he and all other conservative leaders were implicated in the influence-buying scandal.

Asahi’s poll found that voters rated the 3% consumption tax, imposed in violation of a ruling party election promise made three years ago, as the No. 1 issue. Playing down their opposition to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and their advocacy of unarmed neutralism, the Socialists have focused their campaign on a pledge to abolish the tax.

The NHK poll showed that farmers, too, were in a rebellious mood against ruling party decisions to open up major parts of Japan’s agricultural market to imports from the United States, principally beef and citrus products.

A Major Rice Bowl

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The island of Shikoku is one of Japan’s principal mikan (mandarin orange) districts, while the northeastern region is one of Japan’s major rice bowls.

Chairwoman Takako Doi has promised farmers that the Socialists would seek to raise Japan’s self-sufficiency in food production to 60% from the current figure of 30%.

During a campaign tour Friday, the ruling party’s Hashimoto told reporters that “if the election were held now, we would lose our majority” in the upper house. At the beginning of the campaign July 5, Hashimoto predicted the party would cling to a bare majority.

Although the powerful lower house chooses the prime minister, a defeat in the upper house would force the ruling party either to seek a coalition with one or more middle-of-the-road opposition parties or to negotiate compromises on all legislation except the budget and treaties. A lower house election must be held by July, 1990.

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