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Last Updated: Friday, 9 September 2005, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Koizumi hopes gamble pays off
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is about the only Japanese politician anyone anywhere else in the world can identify.

Nippon party, Tokyo
Koizumi wants to defeat rebels who have blocked reform
The dashing divorcee with his wavy grey hair and open-necked shirts used to be greeted with screams from schoolgirls and female fans when he went walkabout.

At a recent election rally in Kyoto, the response from the crowd was more muted - a rather polite, Japanese round of applause.

Mr Koizumi had promised so much when he first came to power, saying he would destroy his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, if its more conservative factions blocked his plans for reform.

Four years on he has brought it to the brink, asking voters on Sunday to back his plans to privatise the country's post office, plans which were blocked by lawmakers in the upper house of parliament, including some members of his own party.

480 lower house seats
241 needed for a majority
LDP held 249 in last term
But lost 37 MPs over postal reform row
Its coalition partner, New Komeito, has 34 seats

"The public and the media call Koizumi 'undemocratic' or 'dictatorial' for calling this election," said Ofer Feldman, a professor at Doshisha University.

"But what we see here is a typical Western style of leadership. He made a decision, acted on it and has made clear he's prepared to take responsibility for it. The Japanese are not used to this kind of style."

Kosuke Shimizu from Ryukoku University has a different view.

"It's bizarre," he said, "calling this election doesn't make sense. Mr Koizumi's Post Office Privatisation Bill was rejected by the upper house of parliament.

The Democrats have tried to raise too many issues and Japanese people prefer it simple
Ofer Feldman, Doshisha University

"Now we are having an election to choose members of the lower house. What happens if a majority of people who support postal privatisation get elected and pass it, but it's rejected in the upper house again? Will we have another election?"

Mr Koizumi's hope is that a strong showing will give him a fresh mandate to push his reforms and override his opponents.

Swept aside

The polls suggest his gamble will pay off. Some pollsters suggest he will do so well that he may not need the support of his coalition partner, Komeito.

But others warn that the unique circumstances of this election mean the old political certainties have been swept away and nothing can be taken for granted.

This is especially the case with 37 LDP members who rebelled against Mr Koizumi's reforms. They now face being challenged by LDP or independent candidates, hand-picked by Mr Koizumi. The failure of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to challenge Mr Koizumi's agenda has also disappointed some commentators.

"The Democrats don't have a strong message," said Mr Feldman. "They don't have a leader as strong as Koizumi and the public is confused because they don't understand the real differences between the two parties."

Noriko Hama from Doshisha University said: ""If you believe in reform you have no choice at all.

People listen to a speech by Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Aug. 30, 2005
The response to Mr Koizumi is more muted than it once was

"The annoying thing is that Koizumi has portrayed himself in such a way as to say if you vote against me you are not voting for reform. But really his agenda has... been all about himself. What he wants."

Predicting the result of the election is difficult.

If Mr Koizumi wins and many of the rebels are defeated, then he will have changed the LDP fundamentally. A lot of the barriers which have made it so difficult to pursue his reform agenda will have been removed.

If he loses, and the LDP is no longer in power or is forced to share it in a grand coalition with the opposition DPJ, again the future direction of Japan will change significantly.

Some say Japan has reached maturity more than half a century after its democratic system was put in place.

But others warn that - as ever in this country - this is really just the first step.

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