Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has dissolved Japan's lower house of parliament, setting the stage for early national elections. The prime minister took the action within hours of the upper house voting down his pet reform project involving the country's postal system.
As the 125-to-108 vote against the package of postal reform bills was read out in parliament Monday, Japan waited to see if Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would make good on his threat to force early elections.
Within hours, the question was answered. Mr. Koizumi called an emergency session of his Cabinet, which voted to dissolve the lower house, making elections mandatory. He also fired Agriculture Minister Yoshinobu Shimomura for protesting the decision. Mr. Shimomura later told reporters that others in the Cabinet shared his view.
In fact, 30 upper house members of the prime minister's own Liberal Democratic Party had joined the opposition in the morning, voting against the postal reform, abstaining or simply not showing up for the vote.
Mr. Koizumi has long championed the overhaul of the country's political and economic structure. He has repeatedly vowed to push ahead with reforms, even if it destroyed his own party and his political career. He said he considers Monday's parliamentary rejection as a no-confidence vote against him personally.
Speaking to party members Monday evening, the prime minister said he wants the election to be a public referendum on postal reform.
Mr. Koizumi says he will only permit those who support his postal privatization platform to run as LDP candidates in the general election, scheduled for September 11. He now finds himself in a tough re-election battle, leading a party fractured by the reform issue.
Some party members have spoken of ousting Mr. Koizumi himself from the party leadership.
But speaking to reporters Monday evening, Mr. Koizumi said he would resign if the LDP and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito, failed to win a majority in the elections.
With brief exceptions, the Liberal Democratic Party, which is actually conservative, has governed Japan alone or in coalition for nearly all of the post-war period.
Political analysts say the opposition Democratic Party now has a good chance to take power.
Critics say the prime minister's obsession with postal reform, an issue that resonates little with the public, has come at the expense of more important domestic and foreign policy matters.
The Japanese postal system is the nation's main savings institution, a repository of $3 trillion in personal savings accounts and life insurance policies.
Proponents of postal reform say the plan is opposed by traditional politicians, who are used to the assets of the postal system financing public works projects, especially in rural areas. There are also cozy ties between postmasters, who help get out the vote, and rural politicians.
Critics say these relationships result in billions of dollars being spent annually on unneeded projects that are frequently tainted by allegations of corruption.