Japan goes to the polls Sunday for a parliamentary election that may see one of the best voter turnouts in more than 50 years. The country has been captivated by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's battle with rebels from his own party, many of whom have defected to a pair of tiny new parties. Not content just to have the rebels out of his Liberal Democratic Party, the prime minister has dispatched what the media dubs "assassin" candidates to try to defeat them.
When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Lower House of Parliament a month ago after the Upper House voted down postal reform, prompting a snap election, it was considered a highly risky move. The pundits immediately began to write Mr. Koizumi's political obituary.
Now, just days before the election, few are predicting an opposition victory. The commentators have come to regard Mr. Koizumi as a master politician able to make the election what he wanted - a referendum on privatizing the postal system.
The prime minister has long vowed to smash his moribund, faction-riddled Liberal Democratic Party, which uses the vast assets of the postal system as a piggy bank to fund public works projects in important rural constituencies.
A former construction minister, Shizuka Kamei - a strong proponent of public works spending - complains that Mr. Koizumi has become the LDP's dictator. And he is angry about what many Japanese call Mr. Koizumi's political "assassins".
Mr. Kamei, in a voice hoarse from the campaign trail, says Mr. Koizumi is even worse than Adolf Hitler because he has dispatched new candidates who may force some longtime LDP loyalists to lose their seats. Mr. Kamei says that is sending them to what he calls the "political gas chamber."
Mr. Kamei, such a shoo-in during the past eight elections that he did not bother to campaign in his district, is this time fighting for his political life. His opponent is a 32-year-old brash independent; a wealthy Internet entrepreneur recruited by the prime minister.
The so-called assassin, Takafumi Horie, has a rock-star following in Japan for his unorthodox and unsuccessful takeover attempts of a broadcasting network and a baseball team. Mr. Horie has no links to the rural district outside Hiroshima in which he is a candidate.
Mr. Horie says he decided to take on Mr. Kamei because his opponent is the very symbol of old-style pork-barrel politics. The young businessman says if he can defeat the former construction minister it will give hope to the people of Japan that the country can really achieve reform.
Another member of Mr. Koizumi's hit squad is environment minister Yuriko Koike - one of 26 female candidates of the governing party, known as the "lipstick ninjas."
"I am not an assassin," she said. "I am a mere challenger to seek a victory for true democracy and reform."
Her opponent, Koki Kobayashi, says Mr. Koizumi has robbed the Liberal Democratic Party of what it stood for during the past half century. He says the LDP is no longer liberal, nor is it democratic and Mr. Koizumi has betrayed the system by sending out assassins such as Ms. Koike who at first glance do not appear so dangerous.
The Japanese media has lapped up this sort of sound bites, virtually ignoring substantive issues, such as the economy and the deployment of Japanese troops to Iraq.
Even the original issue - postal system reform - seems to get relatively little attention. Mr. Koizumi has long vowed to privatize the system, which not only delivers mail, but also serves as a banking institution and insurance agency. It holds trillions of dollars in assets and Mr. Koizumi wants to break it apart to allow businesses greater access to that capital to fuel growth.
The opposition has struggled to find its footing in this campaign. The leader of the Democratic Party of Japan,
, says he will quit if his party does not win a majority of seats.
A frustrated Mr. Okada says Japan finds itself in a terrible situation with a prime minister who can do nothing to stop the deterioration of the country.
Jeffrey Kingston, a Temple University Japan professor says Mr. Okada's party has not been able to gain much ground despite his appeals and the LDP's factional fighting. That is in part because the Democratic Party is led by a previous group of LDP defectors who have not countered Mr. Koizumi's postal reform plan.
"Koizumi has successfully tarred them with the same brush as the dinosaurs of the LDP. It's been very difficult for them to sort of shrug that off," added Mr. Kingston. "They've been very bad on articulating a strong, clear message of 'why the voters should vote for us.'"
Professor Kingston says the prime minister has successfully kept the election spotlight off areas where he is most vulnerable to criticism.
"All the issues in which Koizumi is actually quite weak on - and foreign policy [is] certainly leading that - have not appeared at all in this campaign," he said. "The DPJ tried to make it an issue by saying 'well, if we're elected we'll pull out the [Japanese Self Defense Force] troops from Iraq by the end of the year.' This sort of just plummeted off the radar screen."
The latest polls show the opposition itself at risk of dropping off the screen. Many election analysts are forecasting that the LDP could capture an outright majority Sunday - something the party has not achieved in 15 years.