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Ruling Party Retains Majority, Opposition Gains Big in Japan Election - 2003-11-10

In nationwide parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling coalition has retained its majority, but by a smaller margin than before, and analysts say the big winner might be the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Japan's ruling bloc managed to hold onto power Sunday, but suffered some notable losses. By contrast, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan conceded defeat, but took a major stride towards establishing itself as a viable alternative to the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's LDP lost seats but managed to come up with a majority on its own in Japan's lower house of parliament by merging on Monday with one of the small parties in its coalition. Along with its other coalition partner, it won a majority of 275 seats in the 480-seat chamber. Two independent lawmakers joined the party after the election, raising the coalition's total to 277.

Roger Buckley, a politics professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, says the results reflect public skepticism about Mr. Koizumi's performance and policies. He warns that the leader, who says he will keep his cabinet intact and forge ahead with his reform agenda, could find it difficult to make progress.

Mr. Koizumi has always faced heavy opposition from rivals within his own party, who oppose his agenda of increasing privatization and cutting back on public spending.

"He has always had trouble with his reform plans and I think it will become more difficult for him [after the election]," he said. "The evidence suggests his opponents within his own party will feel more confident, so it will be very difficult, perhaps, for Mr. Koizumi to effect real reform in Japan."

Mr. Koizumi took office more than two years ago on a pledge to revitalize the economy. The public loved the offbeat image the 61-year-old leader had cultivated, which included releasing a collection of his favorite Elvis Presley songs and sending a weekly e-mail to his supporters.

But he has had trouble following through on his promises to clean up the ailing banking sector and privatize some major industries. His popularity ratings have dropped significantly from the record high levels of his early days in office.

Supporters such as Kakutaro Kitashiro, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, continue to express confidence in the leader.

Mr. Kitashiro says the election proves that a majority of voters still back Mr. Koizumi and want him to proceed with his reform track, but he now needs to speed up and carry out his promises.

While Mr. Koizumi and his coalition were the winners on Sunday, Japanese politics expert Stephen Reed of Chuo University says the election will be remembered as a defining moment for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

"The real story is who gained seats and who lost seats," he explained. "The Democrats gained seats and they are feeling really good about this election and are ready to do it again."

The Democrats, who are trying to position themselves as a genuine alternative to the LDP, appear to have won the support of younger, urban voters, and increased their seats in parliament by 40, to 177.

Japanese opposition parties have never presented a serious challenge to the LDP, which has controlled Japan since 1955 except for a brief period in 1993.

During the campaign, the Democratic Party dramatically lifted its profile by merging with another party, fielding younger candidates and issuing a manifesto laying out its policies.

In an editorial published Monday, the Asahi newspaper said the party had succeeded in "clearly explaining its realistic policies" and that the move "resounded with voters."

Kiyoshi Sasamori, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, the country's largest labor group, said that whether the Democratic Party can stand face to face with the LDP and increase its political profile depends on the soundness of the policies it offers in the future.

Still, Professor Reed of Chuo University says the Democrats are now in a theoretical position to triumph in the next election.

"They could - it does not mean they are guaranteed to - but they have definitely made progress this time," he said. "If they made more progress next time they could definitely win."

So while Sunday's poll did not dramatically alter the balance of power in Japanese politics, the outcome means Japan could be headed for a genuine two-party system after half a century of effective one party-rule.