Koizumi gamble pays off with landslide in Japanese election

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The Independent Online

With votes still being counted last night from yesterday's general election, exit polls suggested that the LDP was on course to rule without a coalition partner for the first time since 1990, despite splitting disastrously over Mr Koizumi's plan to privatise Japan Post.

The state broadcaster NHK suggested last night that the LDP would increase its majority from 249 seats in the 480-seat lower house to anywhere from 285 to 325 seats; Mr Koizumi had promised to resign if he received "one seat less" than a majority. The Prime Minister called the snap election last month after parliament rejected his privatisation bill, expelling 37 rebels in his own party and demanding that the country back his reform plans or choose another leader.

The election was bitterly contested, with the Prime Minister's opponents, including a number of former LDP colleagues, accusing him of trying to destroy Japan's social fabric with US-style capitalist reforms. Mr Koizumi called the vote a "referendum on Japan's future".

Speaking on Japanese television last night, Mr Koizumi said the early results, although unconfirmed, seemed to show that he had won "public support for my reforms".

"We presented a clear message to the electorate: continue with structural reforms or stop them. That is why we were successful," he said. Mr Koizumi is now on course to become one of Japan's most influential and longest-serving post-war prime ministers, with a powerful mandate to move ahead with the controversial privatisation plan, which will split up the huge postal network and open up its $3.2trn reserves to private investors.

He is now also almost certain to revise the so-called "pacifist constitution", which was one of the pillars of Japan's post-war political architecture.

The result is a huge setback for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has slumped disastrously after making steady gains, mainly in urban districts, since its foundation in 1996. The DPJ began the election with 175 seats and is predicted to end up with between 84 and 127, which is likely to force the resignation of its leader, Katsuya Okada. "It is a very tough result to accept, but the people have spoken," Mr Okada said last night. "But I don't accept that we were wrong to focus on issues other than postal reform."

Mr Koizumi rebuffed the DPJ's attempts to debate what it said were more pressing issues, including a looming pension and health crisis, uncritical support for the US "war on terror" and Japan's worsening relations with its largest trading partner, China; Mr Okada had promised to resume frozen talks with Beijing and pull Japanese troops out of Iraq if his party won.

Mr Koizumi's triumph caps the most remarkable episode in a four-year political balancing act: reforming Japanese politics as leader of one of the world's most conservative political institutions. Asia's oldest democracy has now been ruled almost continuously by the same party since 1955.