Koizumi is given a huge mandate

Posted in Other , Asia | 12-Sep-05 | Author: Norimitsu Onishi| Source: International Herald Tribune

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejoicing with his Liberal Democratic Party Sunday night.
TOKYO Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in Japan's general election Sunday, earning a popular mandate to push through changes in the world's second-largest economy.

The results, reinforced by a high voter turnout, amounted to a huge personal victory for Koizumi, who called an early election last month after rebellious members of his own party rejected his bill to privatize part of Japan's postal services, the world's largest financial institution with $3 trillion in assets.

The public broadcaster NHK said that the Liberal Democratic Party's final tally stood at 296 seats, far more than the 241 seats needed for a majority in the 480-seat lower house of Parliament, and up from 249 when the election was called, The Associated Press reported. With its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, Koizumi's party will dominate the powerful chamber.

The victory reverses the decade-long decline of the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, which has ruled Japan nearly continuously for 50 years but had been depending increasingly on its coalition partner to govern effectively.

It was a setback for the main opposition Democratic Party, whose gains in recent elections had raised expectations that Japanese democracy was maturing into an era of two- or multi-party rule. The leader of the Democratic Party conceded defeat and said he was stepping down.

"I thought it would be O.K. for the LDP to get a simple majority, but people gave us even better results than we had expected," Koizumi said of his party, which, for the first time in 15 years, is in a position to govern without a coalition party as its partner if it chooses. "I'm overwhelmed with gratitude."

"I think the people handed down a verdict that postal reform is right," he said at his party's headquarters.

The victory by Koizumi, who has been one of the strongest backers of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and has a good relationship with President George W. Bush, will be welcomed in Washington. But it is likely to be greeted with caution in Asia, especially in China and South Korea, which view with trepidation the rightward tilt and rising nationalism in Japan under Koizumi's watch.

Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial whose honored dead include some who committed war crimes, have harmed relations with China, whose booming economy has lifted Japan's own. After his victory Sunday, Koizumi, who has pledged to visit the shrine every year, said he had not changed his position.

During the 12-day campaign, Koizumi succeeded in framing the election simply as a referendum on selling part of the postal system and on domestic issues. The Democratic Party opposed the Yasukuni visits and pledged to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq and repair relations with China and South Korea. But it failed to widen the focus on issues that could have hurt Koizumi.

"I firmly believe our stance to focus on our policies was not wrong," said the Democratic Party leader, Katsuya Okada, before announcing his resignation. "Our message didn't reach the people."

The Democratic Party won 104 seats, according to The AP, down from 175. Analysts had said that a big loss could lead to the breakup of the party.

The Democratic Party was formed in 1998 by former members of the Liberal Democratic Party, socialists and other disparate members.

All parties vying in the election said they supported reform, an indication of the deep-rooted popular desire for change. By making postal privatization - an arcane issue little understood by most voters - a litmus test for reform, Koizumi was able to paint its opponents as reactionaries.

"This election shows how Koizumi is in a league of his own in his political skills and media-savvy," said Gerald Curtis, an expert on Japanese politics at Columbia University, who is visiting Tokyo. "He did the impossible. He managed to convince the electorate that his party, which was opposed to his own reforms, was for change, and that the Democratic Party, which was a party founded for reform, was against change."

Koizumi wants to break up and privatize Japan Post, which, in addition to delivering mail, holds $3 trillion in savings deposits and life insurance that politicians have dipped into for decades to finance public works and reward their backers. He has said that it is the prerequisite for further, if vaguely defined, economic reforms.

Opponents of the postal change said that Japan's postal system, for all its faults, also helped create an egalitarian society by spreading wealth from urban to rural areas. They accused Koizumi of trying to impose an American-style, fiercely competitive system on Japan.

"If things keep going like this, this will be the end of Japan," Shizuka Kamei, a rebel on the postal issue, who was expelled from the Liberal Democratic Party by Koizumi but was re-elected as a member of a new party, said Sunday night on television.

By replacing postal opponents with young, mostly female candidates, Koizumi succeeded in changing the image of the Liberal Democratic Party, long associated with old men in dark suits.

The strong results suggested that Koizumi had succeeded in making his party more attractive to the same younger and urban voters who had given the opposition Democratic Party victories in cities in previous elections.

Shortly after the polls closed, the acting secretary general of the Liberal Democrats, Shinzo Abe, said in an interview with NHK, the public broadcaster, that the results "had been even better than expected."

Koizumi succeeded in reversing the decline of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had become increasingly dependent on its coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito Party.