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A Vote for Reform in Japan

November 14, 2003

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came to power more than two years ago preaching economic reform and aiming to get the country out of its decade-long stagnation. His actions have not yet matched his rhetoric. Last weekend's parliamentary elections give him the chance to live up to his promises, and Koizumi should seize the opportunity.

Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partners will retain power. No surprise there: The party has ruled Japan almost without interruption for nearly half a century. But the Democratic Party of Japan, which had 137 seats in the 480-member Parliament, has won 177 seats, thanks partly to its support for economic and political reform and its campaign against the Liberal Democrats' pork-barrel politics.

The Democratic Party of Japan, formed five years ago, campaigned strongly on the need for a two-party system. That would be a welcome change from the stranglehold of Koizumi's party, often accurately described as neither liberal nor democratic nor a party. Rather it is conservative, is composed of factions and picks prime ministers based on factional strength and back-room deals.

Both the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democrats supported economic reform but were mostly vague on details. They differed on sending troops to Iraq, with Koizumi in favor. On Thursday the government said it would delay the troop dispatch, more due to the suicide-bomber killing in Nasiriyah of more than 30 people, including 18 Italian military police, than to ideology.

Japan needs to overhaul its banking system, which is plagued by bad debts, and weaken or destroy the links between government bureaucrats and private business. Some Liberal Democrats oppose reform and fault Koizumi because the party did not win as many seats as it hoped. He should warn the obstructionists that if they do not overhaul the economy, someday they could be replaced as the dominant party.

Koizumi's election as party leader in April 2001 galvanized Japan because of his relative youth, fresh look and promises to get the country moving. There have been some signs of economic progress since he took office, but not enough. Other nations depend on an economically vibrant Japan for investment and to buy their goods. Despite its doldrums, Japan remains the world's second-biggest economy and a major provider of foreign aid and financier of United Nations operations. The sooner it regains its economic footing, the better for Asia and countries beyond.

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