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Japanese Prime Minister Sweeps Away Opposition

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 Posted: 11:03 AM JST [SLIDE SHOW]

Photos of Japan by Kjeld DuitsIt was thrilling until the results came rolling in. Prime Minister Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Sunday brutally swept the opposition away. In the elections for Japan's lower house, the LDP won the second-largest victory in its history.

Koizumi's ruling party catapulted up from 212 to 296 seats. In spite of the enormous victory, it decided to continue sharing power with coalition partner Komeito. The two parties now control a total of 327 of the 480 seats, an overwhelming majority. Everybody in Japan had predicted that the LDP would win, but this historical landslide surprised even the charismatic Koizumi himself.

The dramatic victory comes at a terrible cost to the opposition. The Democratic party of Japan (DPJ) lost no less than 64 of its 177 lower house seats. Depressed DPJ-leader Okada immediately took responsibility. "The leader should present a strong goal," Okada said Sunday night in interviews with the Japanese media, "and if he can't do that, he must take responsibility."

The massive victory of the LDP is attributed solely to Koizumi. Japanese media talk about "Koizumi Magic" and "Koizumi Theater". Opponents accuse the Prime Minister, who has lead Japan now for four years, to have mislead voters during the campaign by only talking about postal reform.

Japan Post doesn't only deliver the mail. It is the largest financial institution in the world. The postal bank and postal life insurance exceed 388 trillion yen ($2.5 trillion) in assets. Thirty percent of all Japanese savings, and a third of all life insurance policies are controlled by Japan Post. This makes Japan Post three times as large as gigantic western institutions like UBS, Citigroup and HSBC.

Prime Minister Koizumi believes that the Japanese private sector can do the work of the postal services more effectively and more profitably. After the upper house didn't pass his postal privatization bills last month, he therefore disbanded the Japanese lower house.

Although opposition candidates campaigned as they were used to, Koizumi hammered down on his reform plans. He thereby transformed the general elections into a national referendum for reform. During speeches on the stump, he dramatically asked voters: "Are you for or against reform?"

Obviously this appealed to voters. More than 67 percent of voters voted, the highest turnout for general elections since 1996. Voters were also impressed by the way Koizumi disbanded the lower house. Many Japanese long for strong leadership, now that Japan has been sinking on one after the other international ranking list, from economics to education.

"People said I was highhanded in dissolving the lower house, but the people supported me."

Koizumi's election strategy was pure genius. By focusing fully on postal reform, a victory could only be interpreted as a yes-vote for reform. Now that his victory turns out to be so massive, opponents of the reform bills will find it exceedingly difficult to vote against once more. This is important, because the Japanese Prime Minister can not legally disband the upper house, where most resistance to the bills reside. Many upper house members who voted against earlier already said Sunday that they would vote for the postal bills next time.

Koizumi says he does not intend to change the postal bill now that he has won such a large majority. He only wants the bills to be enacted as quickly as possible. "Now that we have the results," he told NHK on Sunday, "without delay I want to enact this bill and continue with other reforms."

During earlier deliberations in both chambers the bill however was so watered down, that some voices will certainly be raised to recall some of the original plans.

But Koizumi doesn't have much time left to realize all his plans. His term as leader of the LDP expires next year September. Since Sunday many have urged Koizumi to extend his leadership, but he stubbornly says he does not want to do so. Those who know him well, say that nobody will be able to change his mind.

This lack of time may turn out to be important. Although Koizumi only talked about postal reform during the campaign, Japan battles a myriad of problems. The economy has finally started growing again, and for the first time in seven years banks are once again lending out money now that the problem of bad loans has been virtually licked. But the super fast graying of society is creating a crisis in pensions and the welfare system. Japanese rural areas are dying a slow death due to depopulation. The birth rate is so low that this year the Japanese population started to decline. There are territorial disputes with all neighboring countries, and diplomatic relations with China and Korea are at freezing point. And this is only the top of the list.

One by one, these are problems that need resolution quickly before they overwhelm the nation. And although Japanese voters have handed Koizumi a resounding victory, this does not mean that they agree with all his ideas. Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Democratic Socialist Party (SDP), the only opposition party that managed to gain seats (from five to seven), sees Koizumi's victory solely as a referendum for postal reform. "I believe," she told NHK Sunday, "that people are for reform. But they don't give carte blanche to this administration on pension, raising of taxes, the rewriting of the constitution and other important issues."

Koizumi has delivered the LDP an impressive victory, but many are now asking themselves if his party can survive his departure next year.

Keywords: national_news photo_essays

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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