Japanese Prime Minister re-elected but support for Iraq takes its toll

Japanese voters returned Junichiro Koizumi to power as Prime Minister yesterday but with a reduced majority and a powerful opposition that has pledged to challenge his decision to dispatch troops to Iraq.

Mr Koizumi's party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), failed to win an outright majority in the Lower House but clung to office thanks to its solid rural vote and the help of two junior coalition partners, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito and the New Conservatives.

At their headquarters across from the Parliament building, the LDP practised a time- honoured ritual of pinning an artificial rose next to the name of each elected candidate.

It is act LDP officials have performed thousands of times since the party first took hold of the government in 1955. But this year, the roses were far fewer than hoped for and the mood more solemn.

Before the television cameras, Mr Koizumi and his aides flashed big grins as they pinned roses to their specially prepared billboard. But out of the view of the cameras, senior party leaders looked glum while they watched television screens reporting the election returns.

The LDP held 247 of 480 seats before the election, with the coalition parties together holding 40 more. Early results last night indicated the LDP would take about 237 seats, while the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was forecast to take 177, up from 137. The election signals the arrival of the DPJ, which recently merged with the Liberal Party, as a principal political force, backed by the country's traditionally under-represented urban voters. It also highlights the steady decline of the conservative LDP, which has been unable to rule alone for a decade and relied heavily during the election campaign on Mr Koizumi's star power.

Analysts said only low turnout and bad weather prevented the DPJ from making even bigger gains. With results still coming in, Mr Koizumi claimed the narrow victory had given him a mandate to continue with his Thatcherite reforms. But most commentators agreed that he had been politically wounded.

Mr Koizumi needed a strong showing in the election to help him silence rivals in his own party. Asked on television whether he would rethink these reforms or his support for the unpopular US-led war in Iraq, Mr Koizumi replied: "Absolutely not. We will continue exactly as before."

Naoto Kan, the leader of the DPJ, told reporters he was stunned by his party's strong showing. The election showed the LDP was yesterday's force and that voters strongly opposed Japan's unqualified support of America, he said.

The Prime Minister has promised to send the military to Iraq by the end of the year.

The main losers appeared to have been the left, with a dismal performance by the Communists and the Social Democrats, whose leader, Takako Doi, lost her seat.