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Election Will Pit Japanese PM Against Opposition Parties and His Own

As Japan gears up for parliamentary elections next month, a battle is looming not just between parties, but also within the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party itself. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has again thrown down the gauntlet to his fellow party members to back his reform agenda, and some of them have responded by questioning his leadership.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has repeatedly vowed to remake his Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japan's government for nearly all of the post-World War II era.

When parliament's upper house Monday defeated his main reform plan for the postal service, he staked his political career on that vow.

After dissolving parliament and calling new elections over the issue, the prime minister warned his party to stand behind him.

In a nationally televised news conference, Mr. Koizumi said that those in the party who do not line up with him on postal privatization could forget about enjoying LDP backing in the election.

Many LDP members, such as former lower house speaker Tamisuke Watanuki, are embittered by the prime minister's political priorities.

Mr. Watanuki questions the constitutionality of Mr. Koizumi's method of dissolving the lower house, and asks whether Mr. Koizumi is still fit to lead the party.

Mr. Koizumi, who took office with a reputation as a maverick, is determined to reform Japan's postal system, which critics say spends billions of dollars on wasteful projects and is prone to corruption.

Many politicians of all parties do not support privatization because of the influence of Japan's rural postmasters and the postal system's 380,000 civil servants. These civil servants comprise a powerful bloc at election time. Every year, some of the postal system's $3 trillion in savings and life insurance assets help fund public works projects. The value of many of these has been questioned, but they are popular with rural voters.

Mr. Koizumi also wasted no time in attacking the main opposition Democratic Party, calling it the anti-reform party because it opposed his postal plan but has not come up with an alternative.

Opposition leaders say Mr. Koizumi has forced parliament to dwell on postal privatization for months and ignored more important domestic and foreign policy matters.

Tuesday, Katsuya Okada, leader of the Democrats, says the government's inability to improve relations with Japan's neighbors should be a major campaign issue. Japan in recent months has found itself embroiled in disputes with China, Taiwan, North Korea and South Korea.

The Democrats have primarily stayed on the sidelines while the LDP tore itself apart over postal reform. Analysts say that given the disarray within the LDP, the Democrats could emerge victorious next month.

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