Katsuya Okada, leader of Japan's main opposition party, is
working the crowd. Outside Kitasenju Station in Tokyo, he heads to a
bank of microphones to appeal to some of the 1 million commuters
that pass by each day.
"The current government has been unable to reform the system -
only the Democratic Party can carry out true reforms. We need a
change of government!" he shouts.
But only about 300 people pay attention - underscoring the uphill
battle Mr. Okada faces as he battles a Teflon-coated Junichiro
Koizumi, now Japan's fourth-longest-serving leader since 1945.
Since his largely unexpected selection as president of the
Liberal Democratic Party in 2001, Mr. Koizumi has dragged cautious
LDP lawmakers into unfamiliar waters, urging fiscal restraint and
smaller government. He has smashed the traditional mold of consensus
politics and led from the top down. He's succeeded in halving the
bad loans at major Japanese banks; nonperforming loans fell by
nearly 60 percent to $164 billion in March. And he's pushed economic
reforms, particularly the ambitious focus of this election:
privatizing the postal savings system.
Now that flamboyant style may be paying off. Buoyed by dropping
unemployment - the rate in July was 4.4 percent - and moderate
economic growth, Koizumi may have boosted the likelihood that he'll
keep his job, while setting the stage for future strong leaders by
increasing the authority of his office.
"Koizumi wants to cull all the reform weaklings from the party,
and people rate that kind of political backbone highly," says
economist Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki at Sojitz Research Institute.
Even so, the attempted privatization of Japan's massive postal-
savings system - the issue that prompted Koizumi to dissolve the
Lower House and call a snap poll - is more than the LDP can swallow
in its present form. The party's political power-base in the
countryside has long benefited from policies that spread the wealth
of Japanese cities to rural voters; Koizumi's reform program attacks
such pork-barrel politics.
Indeed, the election has become something of a referendum on
Koizumi's pursuit of neoliberal ideology, says Jiro Yamaguchi, a
professor at Hokkaido University: "Privatization of the postal
service is just a symbol of this change."
The problem is that there are reformers as well as conservatives
on both sides of the chamber - and this may lead to some kind of
political realignment after the election, with both the LDP and the
opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) reconstituting along more
clear cut proreform and antireform lines, says Mr. Yamaguchi.
If Koizumi wins a mandate, he will be in a strong position to
introduce neoliberal policies in areas from health to pension reform
to agriculture. LDP bigwigs are also urging him to stay beyond the
scheduled end of his tenure in September 2006.
Analysts say victory for Koizumi would be yet another major blow
to Japanese politics, which is heavily influenced by factions within
the parties, and a further step toward a more Western,
"The power of the prime minister has grown ever since electoral
reforms were passed in the mid-'90s, and this is a trend that will
continue," says Jun Iio, an expert at the National Graduate
Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo. …