Wounded Koizumi limps to victory in Japan

Japan's ruling coalition retained a comfortable majority in the upper house of Parliament in elections yesterday, but a strong opposition showing signalled a loosening of the grip on power of the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi.

Television networks, citing exit polls, reported that Mr Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its allies, the Komeito party, together won at least 55 of the 121 seats up for grabs, ensuring their dominance of the upper house.

The opposition Democratic Party, however, capitalised on a recent plunge in Mr Koizumi's popularity because of unease over the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq and the passage of pension reforms that raise premiums and cut benefits.

The Democrats boosted their standing in the chamber by at least nine seats, garnering at least 47 seats, preliminary results showed. Official results are expected this morning.

Half of the upper chamber's 242 seats were contested. Before the vote, the Liberal Democrats held 115 seats in the upper house and controlled a majority of seats together with Komeito's 23 seats. The Democrats had 70.

The embattled Prime Minister, who took office in April 2001 amid high hopes of far-reaching reforms, insisted there was no reason for him to resign to take responsibility for the results, even if the LDP failed to reach its stated goal of winning 51 seats on its own.

The Democrats, who accuse Mr Koizumi of failing to follow through on promises of change, claimed victory. "The people have issued a resounding 'no' to Koizumi's policies," said Katsuya Okada, the leader of the Democrats.

The election had not been expected to threaten the LDP's hold on government. The party, which has been in power for most of the past half century, holds a firm majority in the powerful lower house.

But the robust turnout for the opposition could undermine support for Mr Koizumi within his own party. His popularity is credited with allowing him to stave off opposition among the party's conservative old guard.

"What we're seeing is a result of Koizumi's diminishing popularity - the 'Koizumi effect' is wearing off," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hokkaido University.

The vote also bolstered the emergence of a two-party system, with the LDP balanced by the Democrats rather than dominating a divided opposition.

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