JAPANESE ruling coalition declares victory in upper house election

Sunday, July 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan's ruling coalition declared victory in elections Sunday for the upper house of Parliament, taking a majority of seats in a triumph for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's reform proposals.

The three-party coalition, led by Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, won at least 63 of the 121 seats up for election in the 247-member upper house, the weaker of Parliament's two chambers.

``We've reached our goal for the ruling party, and I want to say `thank you' to everybody who worked very hard in the scorching heat,'' Koizumi said at party headquarters in Tokyo.

Koizumi also reiterated his commitment to structural reforms, and he invited the opposition parties to join him in his effort to remake the Japanese economy.

The declaration came minutes after National broadcaster NHK and Kyodo News service called 63 victories for the coalition, saying exit polls showed the coalition would win even more seats.

Full official results were not to be available until late Monday morning local time. But with the ruling coalition headed to a commanding victory, TV anchors were already asking LDP officials about the possibility of the party winning 78 seats _ enough to take control of the chamber on its own.

The vote was widely seen as a referendum on Koizumi's proposed economic reforms. The prime minister's spectacular popularity had been expected to power the coalition to victory.

Soon after polls closed Sunday night, a poll by the NTV network projected the three-party coalition would win 75 seats. NHK said the alliance could win between 70 and 84 seats, and Kyodo News service also said data showed the coalition would win.

The opposition, meanwhile, moved toward conceding defeat.

``Unfortunately, it seems we are not going to make our biggest goal of forcing the ruling coalition to lose the majority,'' said Naoto Kan of the opposition Democratic Party. ``Mr. Koizumi was hugely popular.''

Despite high interest in the election, turnout late Sunday was running slightly lower than the last upper house election in 1998. The government said that as of 7:30 p.m., 47.2 percent of nearly 102 million eligible voters had cast ballots _ down from 50.8 percent at the same time in the 1998 poll.

At stake were Koizumi's plans to slash funding of costly public works projects, clean up the bad debts hobbling the financial system and put in place other structural reforms to propel the economy out of its 11-year downturn.

``We've been putting off reform for too long in this country, and now we're paying the price,'' said Kenji Masuyama, a 20-year-old university student. ``We need somebody willing to do something drastic.''

Since Koizumi assumed office in April, there has been resistance to his proposals not only from the opposition but from conservative factions within his own party as well. During his campaign, the leader _ never one to mince words _ suggested that he would rather split the LDP than bend to anti-reformists within the party.

While Koizumi has support ratings of about 70 percent, concerns are rising that his proposals could result at first in more unemployment and stymied growth. The jobless rate is already at a record 4.9 percent, and the stock market hit a 16-year low in the past week.

Koizumi opponents are worried that his party will do little to protect laid-off workers from the inevitable strain of corporate restructuring.

``I don't think the LDP is looking out for the welfare of people in this country,'' said Reiko Ohara, a 51-year-old employee of an industry organization who said she voted for the Japan Communist Party. Communists account for only a small fraction of Parliament.

Even for those who support the reforms, there is some doubt about whether Koizumi will be able to cobble together enough support within the LDP _ a bastion of the public works spending the prime minister wants to cut _ to actually implement his ideas.

Throughout the campaign, the opposition found itself struggling to divert public attention from the rakishly handsome, lion-maned prime minister.

Half the seats in the 247-member upper house go up for election every three years. The ruling coalition holds 61 seats that are not up for election this year, meaning victory in 63 seats on Sunday gives the alliance a 124-seat majority.