TOKYO—Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's election sweep gives him an opportunity to push for broad economic reforms in Japan, the world's second largest economy.
Stocks soared to a four-year high Monday on expectations that Koizumi's reforms would be market-friendly. Japan is an important market for U.S. exports and a key U.S. ally.
Koizumi's popularity helped the party capture 296 seats in Sunday's snap elections for the 480-seat lower house of parliament, handing it greater control than at any time since 1986. Koizumi called the elections to back a plan to privatize Japan Post, the nation's massive postal, banking and insurance system.
Koizumi said Monday that postal reform would be his priority and that he would move ahead with other reforms involving pensions and social security.
Despite the extraordinary election sweep, Koizumi said he would quit in 12 months when his term as president of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends.
"Even before the election, I have been saying I will work until September (2006) and have no plan to stay as LDP president nor prime minister afterward," Koizumi said at a post-election news conference. "I haven't changed my mind."
Koizumi took office in 2001 and is Japan's longest-serving prime minister in nearly two decades.
"The LDP is desperate to keep him in office," said Gerald L. Curtis, a Columbia University scholar on Japan who now resides in Tokyo. "He is too good to be true for the party."
The 296 LDP candidates who won on Sunday rode on Koizumi's coattails, Curtis said.
The Liberal Democrats have ruled Japan without interruption since 1955, except for an 11-month period that began in 1993. But the party is now in disarray, its political machinery shredded by internecine fighting. Japanese voters identify less than ever with any political party, preferring instead to vote for bold personalities, like Koizumi.
"There are no loyalists to the party," said Tagashi Inoguchi, a professor of politics and international relations at Chuo University in Tokyo. "We are all swing voters."
Voters turned away from the Democratic Party of Japan, an opposition force founded in 1996 whose leaders scoffed at Koizumi's promises to bring deep reforms. The party, led by former bureaucrat Katsuya Okada, was trounced. Its legislative seats were reduced from 177 to 113.
It might seem paradoxical that voters eager for reform would turn again to a party that's ruled Japan for so long. Yet Koizumi, who proclaimed in 2001 that he would "destroy" the party, turned the organization nearly inside out, purged it of dozens of its most stodgy old-guard members, abandoned traditional political support groups and persuaded voters that true reform could only come from his leadership.
"He got the party and the voters to support positions that the party long opposed," Curtis said.
The stunning electoral triumph also holds an element of challenge for Japan by undercutting a movement toward a stable two-party system with checks and balances.
Koizumi already has jettisoned reliance on LDP think tanks and instead has turned to a small circle of advisers, including a sister. And the factions within the LDP that once battled each other, acting as proto-parties, have been largely relegated to the past.
"There's always a danger when you have a party so powerful, a leader so popular, that he'll go off and do things because the usual checks and balances aren't working," Curtis said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-ELECTION
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