Leading article: A struggle for the future of Japan

By asking the electorate to back him, Mr Koizumi is gambling his own political survival and the future of the LDP, which has been in government for all but two and a half years since 1948. Mr Koizumi claims the contest is nothing less than a battle for the future of Japan. Why? Because those in his own party who oppose his postal reform plan would also stand in the way of a much wider reform agenda.

Mr Koizumi's aggressive tactics, which include sacking opponents in his own party and putting up rival candidates, among them many women and many new to politics, have placed him ahead in the polls.

Whether this will translate into a fresh mandate, and whether he would really carry through the promised reforms if he wins, remains unclear. In Mr Koizumi's four years in power, he has delivered little of the internal reform that Japan's ailing economy, the world's second largest, so badly needs. Debt is still more than 150 per cent of GDP and, on his watch, public spending has gone up instead of down. Signs of modest economic recovery are now present, but that cannot be credited to anything the ruling coalition has done.

Mr Koizumi also warrants criticism for pursuing ill-judged foreign policies: backing the US-led war and sending troops to Iraq, while antagonising China and flirting with the forces of extreme nationalism with his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine.

But the Prime Minister has at least demonstrated that he sees the writing is on the wall for Japan's status quo and opened a national debate on reform. Moreover he has dared to split the LDP on the principle, effectively breaking the mould of the nation's politics.

If the voters decide to endorse him on 11 September, Mr Koizumi should refashion his party permanently. Shorn of its dinosaurs and factions, the LDP could re-emerge as a modern, less xenophobic political force, one capable of opening Japan to the real change that is so long overdue.

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