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Political drama in run-up to election captivates Japanese voters

TOKYO—In past elections, bored Japanese voters faced few real choices.

Not this year. Excitement is in the air as a bitter feud pits Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a maverick with a shock of wavy salt-and-pepper hair, against a coterie of aging political foes.

Voters are mesmerized. In a bid to defeat 37 one-time stalwart members who were expelled from his Liberal Democratic Party, Koizumi has picked wildly unconventional political novices—including a celebrity chef and an Internet tycoon—to run against them.

Some commentators describe Sunday's general election as among the most important in Japan's post-war era, signaling a possible transition to a more pluralistic political system. The Liberal Democratic Party has held power almost without interruption for five decades.

At first it seemed Koizumi acted recklessly in early August by calling the snap elections after the Lower House of the Diet, or parliament, narrowly rejected his plan to privatize the mammoth postal service. But since then, Koizumi has deftly tossed aside other issues and cast the election in basic terms: Are you for reform or against reform?

"It's a simple question, and that question has penetrated the minds of voters," said Haruo Shimada, an economist and professor at Tokyo's Keio University.

Rather than take to the streets to explain the nitty-gritty of postal system reform, Koizumi has framed himself as a samurai purging his party of big-spending politicians who use massive savings held in the postal system to finance pork-barrel projects. All the while, the 63-year-old divorced Koizumi has cut a different figure, wearing open-neck shirts and chatting about his favorite 16th-century feudal warlord.

"He's self-confident. He goes out and speaks boldly," said Takao Toshikawa, a political commentator. "People think that's cool."

He's also pulled in political outsiders, including a former television newscaster and a chef who's the Japanese equivalent of Martha Stewart, to parachute into districts and run against renegade LDP lawmakers who voted against postal reform on Aug. 8. Those lawmakers were expelled from the party.

The only male among the outsiders is Takafumi Horie, a 32-year-old millionaire given to T-shirts who's Japan's best-known Internet entrepreneur. Horie is taking on an ousted LDP foe of Koizumi, Shizuka Kamei, in a Hiroshima district.

Kamei, locked in the fight of his life, bemoaned his fate, saying Koizumi wants to send one-time allies like him "to the political equivalent of a gas chamber."

But for average Japanese, the races could not be more enthralling. Nearly three-fifths of Japan's 100 million voters tell pollsters they are "very interested" in the election.

"Everybody's eyes glaze over at the discussion of postal reform. So Koizumi is providing a three-ring circus," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.

Newspapers' front pages can't get enough of what the news media have dubbed Koizumi's gang of "assassins."

"It is really astonishing for many people," said Shimada, the economist. "It is completely out of Japanese culture. You don't assassinate your friends."

Some political scientists say the postal reform issue simply served as a pretext for Koizumi to carry out a pledge made in 2001, when he first came to office, to "demolish the LDP from within."

"Koizumi has been very cunning and sly by showing this drama as reform-minded forces versus old-fashioned forces," Toshikawa said.

The political drama has drowned out the serious message of Koizumi's main opponent, Katsuya Okada, of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Okada says he would withdraw Japan's 600 troops from southern Iraq, saying their deployment could draw an al-Qaida terrorist attack on Japan. Okada also promises not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where World War II war criminals are buried, marking distance with Koizumi, who has inflamed East Asian neighbors with his past visits.

But Okada and his advisers aren't getting much traction out of serious issues.

"They've run a very poor campaign. They haven't offered a really clear vision of how they're different," Kingston said. Moreover, while DPJ legislators generally support postal privatization, they opposed details of the plan up for a vote Aug. 8. "They've been tarred with the brush of being against reform, which is not actually true."

It may end up being a close race. With the defection of the 37 renegade LDP lawmakers, Koizumi now only counts 213 LDP seats in the 480-seat Lower House. While allies in the New Komeito party hold 34 seats, Koizumi may have to carry out his promise to quit if the two parties don't gain a simple majority.

Japan's stock and bond markets have rallied, a sign that financial analysts believe Koizumi will triumph.

"We think the probability is quite high that Mr. Koizumi will take office again," said Susumu Kato, a senior Japan economist for Lehman Brothers, the investment bank.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Junichiro Koizumi

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