Koizumi Bets Future on Party, Reforms

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Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has staked his political future on Sunday's snap elections, saying he is willing to resign if his party loses. Koizumi's stated goal is to overhaul the ruling Liberal Democratic Party political machine. Koizumi's party has a clear lead in the polls.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Japan will hold general elections this Sunday, and the vote is being portrayed as a referendum on political and economic reform. That has captured the attention of Japanese voters, even though the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has a clear lead in the polls. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

The projected LDP win on Sunday would owe much to `Koizumi Theater,' the Japanese media's name for the charismatic politics of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi has been prime minister since 2001 and has pledged to resign if his party fails to hold his parliamentary majority. His dramatic decisions and catchy soundbites, his pastel shirts and rock star hairdo all stand out against Japan's cautious and somber political culture. Hiroshi Hoshi is a senior political writer with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Mr. HIROSHI HOSHI (Senior Political Writer, Asahi Shimbun): (Through Translator) I think that rather than looking at things logically, Koizumi is by nature more emotional.

KUHN: Koizumi called snap elections a month ago after legislators defeated a bill aimed at privatizing Japan's postal service. He has since tried to oust the rebel lawmakers from his own party by sending hand-picked candidates to beat them in their own constituencies. The `assassins,' as the media has dubbed them, include a beauty queen, an Internet tycoon and a TV pastry chef, apparently picked by Koizumi for their name recognition. The imagery has been a hit with often-apathetic voters.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KUHN: As he emerges from a local post office, salary man Matahichi Shimizu says he'll vote for the LDP and agrees that Koizumi should send pro-reform candidates to defeat the dissenters.

Mr. MATAHICHI SHIMIZU: (Through Translator) Instead of seeing them as assassins, we should see them as supporters of reform of the postal system. The LDP has just sent them to areas where there are no reform supporters just to give the people a choice.

KUHN: In a television advertisement, the prime minister described Sunday as a `one-issue election.'

(Soundbite of television advertisement)

Prime Minister JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Japan): (Through Translator) I am Junichiro Koizumi. This election is to ask you if you support or oppose privatization of the postal system.

KUHN: In Japan, post offices double as banks. They now have over $3 trillion in assets, making them one of the world's largest financial institutions. But critics say the LDP often uses the money to reward cronies and fund pork-barrel construction projects. Koizumi has seized on the postal issue as a symbol. It's a metaphor for his quest to bury the opaque and corrupt style of politics by which the LDP has monopolized power for most of the past half century.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, is also hoping to capitalize on the public's hunger for reform. The DPJ has 177 seats in the 480-seat house of representatives.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

KUHN: Kazuo Inoue is campaigning on a Tokyo street corner. He's typical of young DPJ legislative candidates with his graduate degree from Columbia University and years of experience overseas working for UNICEF.

Mr. KAZUO INOUE (DPJ Legislative Candidate): This is the first election in Japan that the two major parties really, you know, are contesting for the power. And we hope that, you know, Japan will have also same political system like the US and the UK, a two-party system.

KUHN: Inoue points out that Japan's problems go far beyond the postal system. Similar corruption needs to be rooted out of other bureaucracies, Japan's pension system needs overhauling, and the country remains mired in debt more than 1.6 times its Gross Domestic Product. But Junichiro Koizumi is due to step down as head of the LDP next year, and how far the reforms go will be up to his successors. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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