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Koizumi wins Japan election landslide: exit polls

September 11, 2005

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, Sept 11 – Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi’s long-ruling party won a landslide victory in Sunday’s
election for parliament’s lower house, TV exit polls showed, a
stunning win that will tighten the U.S. ally’s grip on power
and give him a broad mandate for market-friendly reform.

An exit poll by public broadcaster NHK showed the Liberal
Democratic Party, which has been governing in coalition, would
win between 285 and 325 seats in the 480-seat chamber.

That represents a striking victory for Koizumi, a
media-savvy maverick who gambled his career in a populist
appeal to voters to back his plan to privatize Japan’s postal
system, a financial services giant that includes a postal
savings bank and insurance business with a combined $3 trillion
in assets.

“We asked whether the public thinks Koizumi’s structural
reforms symbolized by privatization of the three postal
services should be pushed forward or stopped,” said LDP
executive Shinzo Abe after the exit poll results.

“I think we received wide support from the public on this
point,” added Abe, often tipped to succeed Koizumi when the
prime minister’s term as LDP president expires next September.

NHK, whose findings were in line with those of private
broadcasters, also forecast that the LDP and its partner, the
New Komeito party, would win a combined total of between 313
and 361 seats, allowing them to dominate the powerful lower
chamber.

The 63-year-old Koizumi, a telegenic veteran with an
aptitude for punchy slogans but a mixed record on implementing
change, called the election after LDP lawmakers helped the
opposition defeat bills to privatize Japan Post in the upper
house.

Koizumi’s shock decision to strip LDP rebels of party
backing and send what media called “assassin” candidates to
challenge the “traitors” grabbed the limelight, making the
election as much a referendum on Koizumi himself as on his
policies.

A victory for Koizumi’s two-party coalition will please
Washington, where he is seen as a staunch friend for backing
the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and will be welcomed by investors in
Japanese financial markets, who want reform to stay on track.

But there will be little cheering in China and South Korea.
Ties with both neighbors, victims of Japan’s past militarism,
have chilled since Koizumi took office in 2001 due to
perceptions of rising Japanese nationalism and regional
rivalry.

OPPOSITION TROUNCED

NHK’s exit poll showed the opposition Democratic Party
taking only between 84 and 127 seats, a sharp defeat that was
likely to raise questions about the future of a two-party
system in Japan, where the LDP has ruled for most of the past
five decades.

The Democrats, led by stern-faced Katsuya Okada, 52, had
argued that a change of government was needed to achieve reform
and that issues such as fixing the pension system mattered more
than the post office.

Koizumi has long promised to change the hide-bound LDP or
destroy it in the attempt. The victory will strengthen his hand
over old guard rivals who consider their main job to be
distributing benefits to the hinterlands and interest groups.

“This is a very, very clear public vote, not only for
postal reforms but for general reforms. So the internal
opposition in the LDP is really broken,” said Martin Schulz, a
researcher at Fujitsu Research Institute.

Koizumi’s populist appeal, the media strategists hired by
rival parties, and the debates over policies have contrasted
sharply with past campaigns, in which TV-shy lawmakers wooed
supporters mainly with budget handouts and other favors.

Nationwide voter turnout came to an average 50 percent as
of 6 p.m. (0900 GMT), up 2.65 percentage points at the same
time in the previous election in 2003, according to government
figures.

Koizumi has vowed to resubmit the postal bills if his
coalition won, and several upper house rebels have already said
they would back the legislation if the coalition took a
majority.

The hefty win could also prompt calls for Koizumi to stay
on after his term as LDP president ends next year.

Many economists view postal privatization as a catalyst for
broader reforms, but they also note Koizumi has yet to flesh
out programs beyond postal privatization, a passion that has
dominated his career — including a stint as postal minister.

“He will likely take care of postal privatization bills
within the year, but what does he plan to do after that?” said
Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hokkaido University.

The LDP had 249 seats and partner New Komeito had 34 before
the 480-member lower house was dissolved, while the Democrats
had 175. But Koizumi refused to put 37 rebels who voted against
postal reform on the party ticket.

Tokyo share prices have climbed nearly 10 percent since the
election was called on August 8, but investors will be watching
to see how Koizumi follows through.

“It’s also important to note that the point of the election
was to strengthen Koizumi’s reform mandate, so we’ll be looking
how he delivers on this front,” said Luke Waddington, chief
forex dealer at Royal Bank of Scotland in Tokyo.

(Additional reporting by George Nishiyama, Masayuki Kitano,
Isabel Reynolds, Elaine Lies, Shinichi Kishima, Tamawa Kadoya)




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