Strong Turnout Seen as Japanese Turn Out for Decisive Elections

The turnout for Japan's national election Sunday appears to be heavier than in the last elections. News media estimate the turnout will top the nearly 59 percent of qualified voters who voted in 2003. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called the snap election after lawmakers voted down privatization of Japan's postal system. The latest election surveys show the prime minister's Liberal Democratic Party is expected to do well in the parliamentary election.

Voter interest in Japan is high with one of the biggest turnouts in years predicted.

Pre-election surveys conducted by Japan's major media outlets predicted a big victory for the governing coalition. The coalition is composed of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is actually conservative, and the New Komei Party, which relies on the estimated eight million households of the Soka Gakkai religious sect for unwavering support.

Balloting began early on Friday when residents of Ogami Island - population 53 - went to the polls ahead of an approaching typhoon. Several other towns in the storm's path in the southern part of Okinawan Prefecture were also allowed to vote early on Saturday.

Prime Minister Koizumi, campaigning on Friday, says he called this election so the public could weigh in on his plan to privatize the postal system - which has been rejected by lawmakers.

Mr. Koizumi says postal privatization will pave the way for revitalization of the Japanese economy and national reconstruction.

Japan's post offices function not only as a mail service, but, collectively, as the country's largest savings institution and insurance agency with three-trillion dollars in deposits.

Several senior coalition politicians defected over the issue. But Mr. Koizumi and younger LDP reformers have kept on message that they want to root out inefficiencies in the system, which leave it open to corruption.

The largest opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, has struggled to gain popular attention during the campaign, despite criticizing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as representing the status quo. Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada tells voters change is not possible under the party that has ruled Japan for decades.

Mr. Okada says the only way to really change Japan is for another party to seize power. He says, the Democratic Party of Japan is the only one that can bring about true reform.

Japan specialist Jeffrey Kingston - who teaches at the Tokyo campus of America's Temple University - says the prime minister has clearly outmaneuvered Mr. Okada.

"A month ago, when the elections were called, everybody was more or less saying that the LDP is going to be on the ropes, Koizumi might resign, they will be lucky to form a coalition government; DPJ probably - they have a good chance to win. Nobody now seems to think they have even a remote chance of winning," he said.

If pre-election surveys prove true that means the Liberal Democratic Party, which has led the country virtually without interruption for more than half a century, will remain at the helm with Mr. Koizumi staying on as prime minister for another 12 months or possibly, as some in his party are now urging, two years.

Steve Herman

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

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