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Lack of interest is clear winner in Japanese poll

THE JAPANESE electorate gave a resounding vote of no interest in their politicians on Sunday, with half the voters staying at home in the lowest turnout ever for national elections.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) claimed victory by winning 69 of the 127 Upper House seats up for election, while the Socialists, the main opposition party, failed to raise the promised protest vote against the new peace-keeping bill which allows Japanese troops to be posted overseas with the United Nations.

The 50.7 per cent of the electorate who did vote seemed more concerned about the weakening Japanese economy, and took the traditional route of opting for the LDP as the safest hands in an economic crisis. The LDP initially cast the election as a referendum on the controversial peace-keeping bill, which was passed in a watered-down version in June after two years of parliamentary struggling. But sensing that voters were more interested in their wallets, it made a last-minute shift to hammer home its image as the supreme economic caretaker.

On Friday, the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, called an emergency meeting on ways to revitalise the economy, and over the weekend the government leaked news that the official discount rate was to be lowered. Yesterday, the Bank of Japan announced that the discount rate at which it loans money to banks was to be lowered by 0.5 per cent to 3.25 per cent - the fifth such cut since last July.

Celebrations at LDP headquarters yesterday were more about damage limitation than a political breakthrough. The party actually lost six seats overall, but avoided its disastrous showing in the last elections for the Upper House, in 1989, when it won only 36 seats and lost its absolute majority there for the first time. Half of the Upper House seats are elected every three years.

With its numbers further eroded in the Upper House, the LDP will continue to rely on backroom dealing with two small opposition parties - the Komeito and the Democratic Socialists - to pass troublesome legislation. The party still has a safe majority in the more powerful Lower House.

The Socialists were the real losers. Having won 26 per cent of the vote in 1989 by exploiting an unpopular sales tax, their share on Sunday dropped to less than 13 per cent, as few voters seemed inspired by their campaign on the peace-keeping bill. Apart from trying to frighten voters by saying that the bill would mean sending Japanese men to battlefields around the world, the party had little substance to its campaign, and failed to put forward credible alternative policies to the LDP's.

The Unidentified Flying Object party, which promised to inject an extra-terrestrial element into Japanese foreign policy by building a landing strip for UFOs in western Japan, also failed to inspire voters, and won no seats.

And while voters gave their lukewarm support to Mr Miyazawa and his promises to boost the economy, the stock market was not impressed. The Nikkei 225 stock average, already at a six-year low, failed to rally after the announcement of an interest-rate cut.