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Japan's Koizumi Wins in a Landslide

Prime minister's party wins a majority in lower house of parliament, after a brazen campaign that could signal a new political era.

September 12, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won a crushing reelection victory Sunday, gaining sweeping political command in Japan and securing a mandate for a more thorough overhaul of the nation's sclerotic economy.

The final count gave the Japanese leader's Liberal Democratic Party 296 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, up from its previous 212 seats. The victory was the party's second-best showing in its five-decade history and gave Koizumi an outright majority even without the support of his junior coalition partner, the Buddhist-based New Komeito Party.

The verdict vindicated Koizumi's gamble last month to call an election and force a showdown with lawmakers, including 37 members of his party, opposed to his plan to privatize the massive state-owned postal system.

The magnitude of his victory could usher in a new era in Japanese politics. Koizumi ran a theatrical, confrontational campaign in a country that has always held the belief that politics must operate by consensus, with accommodation worked out in the backrooms and radical edges shaved off every policy.

"I believe the results of this election reflect that we have changed," a relaxed Koizumi said on national television after the vote. "Though opposition may be strong, we will proceed with reforms."

The election was ostensibly fought over the privatization of Japan Post, which in addition to delivering the mail is a financial giant that holds $3 trillion in savings and insurance assets.

The money has long been used for public works projects of sometimes questionable value, symbolizing for many the cronyism and corruption in Japanese politics. Koizumi argued that the discipline of privatization would end the waste.

However, many also saw postal reform as code for a wider referendum on whether Japan needed to change the way its government and economy operate and on whether Koizumi was the leader to make the fixes.

The answer from voters was a clear yes. Polls showed Koizumi led the short campaign from the start and was pulling away as it ended. Frustrated opposition leaders complained they couldn't get a hearing on other issues, from a looming pension crisis to sour relations with China and the decision to send Japanese soldiers to Iraq.

Katsuya Okada, a former bureaucrat who led the opposition Democratic Party of Japan into the election, immediately said he would resign as party leader. The DPJ lost 64 of its 177 seats, a sign that Koizumi's party had taken away a swath of its base among urban voters. Okada described the extent of the defeat as "beyond my expectation."

"I raised the critical issues, the aging society with a low birthrate and financial collapse, but these didn't get through to voters," he said in an earlier appearance.

The Japanese media and public seemed to have only an appetite for Koizumi's gunslinger approach to dealing with the rebels in his party. The LDP has ruled Japan for all but 11 months over the last 50 years, and the sight of its leader publicly jettisoning powerful party rivals in the midst of a campaign was an unusual drama in a country renowned for its dull politics.

When his postal reform bill was defeated in parliament last month, Koizumi called a snap election and kicked the 37 dissident members out of the party, forcing them to retire, run as independents or band into ill-prepared small parties.

He then recruited celebrity candidates to challenge the former LDP stalwarts in their own districts. The fresh faces generated media excitement, and the Koizumi team hammered away with its campaign slogan: kaikaku, or reform.

By contrast, the dissidents appeared off-balance, grumpy and almost offended by Koizumi's audacity. Several accused him of being a "dictator," with Shizuka Kamei, a onetime powerful contender for prime minister, calling Koizumi "worse than Hitler" for having sent the rebels "to a gas chamber."

Just more than half of the rebels were reelected Sunday, including Kamei, who defeated Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, a Koizumi ally.

Koizumi's landslide nonetheless purged his party of that old guard, and sent a shot across the bow of any others who might have considered crossing him.

"The LDP is now Koizumi's party," said Tamisuke Watanuki, one of the rebels expelled by the prime minister.

What Koizumi does with that mandate remains unsettled. His term as LDP leader ends next September, at which time he is required by party rules to step down as prime minister. But the term limit can be extended by a simple amendment of party bylaws, and many here expect Koizumi to push for just that. On election night, his New Komeito coalition partners were already urging him publicly to stay on for at least another year.

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