AMID poor weather and a markedly low turnout, Japanese voters delivered a profoundly ambiguous verdict in yesterday's general election, as they endorsed more conservative candidates than ever before but in such a way as to make short-to medium-term instability almost certain. Up to 30 days of intense political manoeuvring are in prospect, with a weak government the likely result. But, in the longer run, the election may turn out to be a second slow-but-sure step towards the development of a viable two-party democracy. As expected, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), losing its majority for the fourth time in its 38-year dominance, was severely trounced. But the longstanding rival that has never succeeded in ousting the LDP from power, the Japanese Socialist Party, did even worse. The real winners in the election, also as expected, were the three parties formed in the past year from LDP dissidents. Both the Nihon Shinto (Japan New Party) and the Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) did better than any previous new parties on the Japanese political scene. The Sakigake (New Forerunner Party) also added to its pre-election strength. Hence the paradox: while the LDP was finally losing its majority, and maybe its control of the Government, the reality was that Japanese voters returned even more conservative-minded candidates than ever before. All three new parties are right-wing in most of their policies. Together, they have won more than 100 seats. They differ from the LDP mainly in their more insistent attitude towards political reform - the issue which brought about the election. Hence the likelihood that it will not be easy for the LDP - as on three earlier occasions - to regain its ruling majority merely through alliance with one opposition party. Since Nihon Shinto, Shinseito and Sakigake have put themselves on the political map by espousing change, they are unlikely to abandon reform in order to put the LDP back in power. Against this, it will also be difficult for the old and new opposition parties to form a new ruling coalition. Earlier, Shinseito sponsored coalition talks between the Socialists, the Democratic Socialists, the Komeito, and the Shaminren or Salarymen's party. Since the Socialists have done so badly, any such coalition would now require further support from Nihon Shinto, Sakigake, minor parties and independents. Hence the near-certainty that extended wheeling and dealing is the most immediate result of the election. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said on Saturday that he would stay on as caretaker premier if the LDP emerged as the largest single party - which it has. But parliament must meet within 30 days to elect a new prime minister. In 1953, all 30 days were required before a government was put together. It may happen again.