Japan's leaders hang on

Japan's coalition government was holding on stubbornly to power last night, despite one of the most dismal performances by an incumbent leadership in recent electoral history.

In national elections to the Upper House of the Diet, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the embattled Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, lost 60 per cent of its 41 contested seats. Its coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), gained 13 seats, fewer than had been anticipated, and the government as a whole secured about 65 seats, little more than half of the 126 that were up for election. The leading opposition party, Shinshinto, more than doubled its share from 19 to 39. Voter turn-out, at around 45 per cent, was the lowest in post-war history. Never before have fewer than half of all voters turned out for a national election.

After a disastrous year, Mr Murayama's team appeared to have no more credibility left to lose. A cabinet reshuffle is likely this week but, as party leaders met at the Prime Minister's residence to pick over the results last night, there were no signs of immediate changes among the government's key personnel.

Political analysts, including members of Mr Murayama's own party, had fostered the view that the elections were a referendum on the 71-year- old Prime Minister, who had promised to "take responsibility" for heavy Socialist losses, a euphemism for resignation.

But as the election has neared, and opinion polls worsened, party statements of what constitutes defeat have been revised ever downward. The SDP's original goal was 22 seats, equivalent to its showing in the last Upper House elections three years ago; last week the figure of 20, the party's worst previous showing in an Upper House election, was being floated. But, despite late results suggesting an SDP total of 16, coalition leaders denied that Mr Murayama would resign.

"We have a strong desire to maintain the existing coalition government," said the LDP's vice-president, Keizo Obuchi. "Is it appropriate for a change of government when there are numerous tasks to be tackled?''