Heated Japanese Election Campaign Begins

Campaigning has officially begun in Japan for the September 11 parliamentary election. The election, regarded as the most pivotal in more than 50 years, comes after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the lower house of parliament to call for a national mandate on his postal reform plan.

The election campaign, filled with the type of political intrigue even candidates acknowledge resembles a television drama, began Tuesday in typical fashion with party leaders atop sound trucks appealing for votes.

Democratic Party head Katsuya Okada, with the sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up, appeals to voters for a chance to carry out pension and social welfare reform. He blasts the prime minister for focusing the election solely on the issue of postal privatization.

But polls show Mr. Okada's plea is mainly falling on deaf ears. Mr. Koizumi and his Liberal Democratic Party enjoy a two-to-one lead over the Democrats and have picked up endorsements from powerful business groups. In the most recent polls, however, Mr. Okada's party has slightly narrowed the gap.

Mr. Koizumi, dressed in a pink shirt and white slacks atop his party's truck, tells Tokyo voters postal reform is the prerequisite for all other reform.

The prime minister, his voice already hoarse, says voters should send a message to legislators that they favor transforming tens of thousands of public employees into private sector workers.

In a daring political gambit this month, Mr. Koizumi kept his vow to dissolve the lower house of parliament after the less powerful upper house rejected his plan to privatize the public post office.

Japan Post is more than a mail delivery service - it is the repository of $3 trillion in savings and life insurance policies, which bureaucrats and politicians have traditionally used to fund pork-barrel public works projects.

Dozens of office holders in Mr. Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, comfortable with the status quo, helped the opposition block his privatization scheme and then bolted from the LDP before they were expelled. Some are now running for office as members of two hastily formed small parties.

To defeat them, the prime minister has recruited young, telegenic candidates from outside politics, including a former beauty queen and a wealthy Internet entrepreneur.

The battle between the grey-haired anti-reformists and the youthful so-called "assassins" has prompted even Mr. Koizumi to characterize himself as one of Japan's old medieval lords intent on neutralizing a band of rebels.

The campaign's official kick-off did witness one violent incident. Police say a woman critically injured herself by slashing her neck, stomach and wrists with a knife after failing to ram through a security gate in front of Mr. Koizumi's office. Investigators say they found leaflets inside her car criticizing the prime minister.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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