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Japan's Nakasone looks to strike out opposition in national elections

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has a penchant for baseball metaphors. ''I was like a relief pitcher with no outs and the bases loaded when I took over the premiership last November,'' he declared on a recent campaign tour for the June 26 Upper House of Councillors election.

What the premier seeks is a string of opposition strikeouts to give his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a strong victory.

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Not that this will necessarily mean very much in a national political context - the LDP already has a firm majority in the upper house, a subordinate chamber of the Japanese Diet (parliament) with a purely review role. But it is personally important to Mr. Nakasone to strengthen his power base in the faction-ridden party and prove he is his own man with strong public appeal.

If all goes well in Nakasone's first electoral test, many commentators believe he will be tempted to call a snap general election for the more powerful lower House of Representatives.

He resisted strong pressure from former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to make the June 26 vote a double election, a move seen by many as evidence Nakasone wishes to distance himself from the man most instrumental in securing his elevation to the premiership last year.

The verdict will be handed down this fall in Mr. Tanaka's trial for allegedly accepting a large bribe from Lockheed Corporation representatives while in office to help promote its sales to Japanese airlines. A guilty verdict is generally seen as undermining the former prime minister's position as political kingmaker as well as possibly affecting the ruling party's standing with the public.

As a result, Nakasone was regarded as being keen to avoid making ''political ethics'' a key campaign issue, especially when he was also trying to play down his own controversial ''hawkish'' image on the defense issue with the public.

Throughout a hectic campaign schedule, he has virtually ignored military subjects, concentrating instead on the domestic issues of a tax cut and revitalization of the stagnant economy. It has been a lackluster campaign without headline-making statements and controversy. Party election officials have expressed fears that only about half the electorate will bother to vote.

The opposition parties have not been able to mount a powerful campaign to win back the ground they lost in the 1980 double election. And attempts to attack Nakasone for his hawkish defense policy do not appear to have gained much support.

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Japan Socialist Party (JSP) chairman Ishio Asukata told one audience, ''We Japanese, forced to board the 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' under the Nakasone regime, are moving steadily toward war.'' Such an appeal might have been effective 30 years ago when the JSP made major electoral gains on a platform of a choice between ''guns and butter,'' but the current international situation, where Japan can see Soviet military might literally on the horizon, makes an anti-defense stance much less effective. JSP Election Management Committee chairman Kenjiro Kadoya describes his party's chances as ''unpredictable,'' a tacit admission that the election is already regarded as a lost cause.

Commentators have noted a strong current of apathy among other opposition parties. Not even a change in the election system has managed to overcome the lethargy.

Half the 252 upper house seats are up for reelection in this triennial election. Of these 76 are allocated to individuals on a local basis, while the other 50 are being fought under a proportional representation system in which the electorate is voting on a national basis for the party, not the man.

The new electoral system was designed to stop the evil of so-called ''money politics'' where individual candidates in the national constituency were forced to spend fortunes to get elected.

The system has had several unexpected effects, however. It has encouraged the proliferation of ''mini'' political parties. There are 17 identifiable groups challenging the LDP this time. It has made it impossible for opposition parties to forge alliances, sharing out constituencies where they were strongest in a bid to stop an LDP sweep.

It is generally predicted that the LDP will win by a good margin, perhaps increasing its current 134 seats in the upper house.

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