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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 November, 2003, 01:43 GMT
Koizumi takes on his own party

By Jonathan Head
BBC correspondent in Tokyo

One of the local Liberal Democrat Party officials in the provincial town of Mobara took me aside to give his view of his prime minister.

"To tell you the truth, Koizumi-san doesn't know what he's talking about. We all strongly disagree with his policies. But we need him to win this election," he said.

Mobara is like thousands of others in Japan. Its commercial heart has collapsed; shops are shuttered, streets deserted, the local Sogo department store now a half-empty, seven-storey shell.

Mr Koizumi tries on a traditional Vietnamese hat in Hanoi
The ruling party knows Mr Koizumi's popular flamboyant image is useful
But the LDP still rules supreme. The local MP, Eisuke Mori, inherited the post from his father, who inherited it from his father. No one can imagine anyone else doing the job.

Volunteers for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are campaigning energetically for their candidate, but they admit they have little chance of winning.

At the LDP headquarters, local businessmen's hopes of an economic revival for the town hang on a massive road-building project promised by the central government. It is classic, old-style pork-barrel politics, but no one in Mobara sees it that way.

Mobara is typical of LDP constituencies across the country. For all his talk of shaking up the party and reforming its habits, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has so far had little impact on the way the local party chooses its candidates.

A switch from multi-seat to single seat constituencies has made a difference - voters now know exactly who they are voting for.
However much the old guard dislike Mr Koizumi's style and his policies, the LDP would very likely lose the election without him

But it does not appear to have changed their inclination to support familiar, LDP faces. Mr Koizumi himself inherited his seat from his father.

Still, Mr Koizumi continues to campaign on a pro-reform platform, even though many LDP candidates oppose his proposals to privatise the Post Office and reform the free-spending National Highways Agency.

His personal appeal and charisma seem undiminished. Voters in urban areas, where the LDP political machine is weak and where the DPJ is gaining ground, actually credit Mr Koizumi with having the courage to attack his own party.

He has already shown his ability to defy the conservative party elders with his choice of pro-reform ministers in his last cabinet re-shuffle. If the LDP fares well in the election and gains a strong overall majority, Mr Koizumi may feel emboldened to implement his reformist agenda more quickly.

The Akashi Kaikyo bridge
Big projects have been used to funnel money back to politicians
A growing number of younger LDP politicians are also backing the prime minister's reform programme, even though they may still depend on traditional party machines in their own constituencies.

There is a recognition that the party cannot keep spending money indefinitely to maintain its support base. The government had to borrow more than $300bn this year. Japan's pension system is under pressure from an ageing population.

The Koizumi reforms are probably inevitable at some stage, however unpalatable they may be for the LDP's vested interests.

There is an even greater recognition that the party needs Mr Koizumi's popularity to win over an increasingly sceptical electorate. However much the old guard dislike his style and his policies, the LDP would very likely lose the election without him. Personality has taken centre stage in Japanese politics.




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