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Legislative win bolsters Japanese prime minister's push for reform

TOKYO—Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi scored a crushing victory Sunday in snap legislative elections, giving powerful momentum to his campaign to slim down his nation's bureaucracy.

Supporters of Koizumi, a strong U.S. ally, won at least 294 seats in the 480-seat Lower House of the Diet, or parliament, according to a vote count tallied early Monday by the state television network.

The huge victory, labeled by one opposition politician as "Typhoon Koizumi," gave the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enough seats in the Lower House to govern without a coalition partner for the first time in 15 years.

"The result was more than I expected," Koizumi said. "The Japanese people said they wanted to keep reform, not stop reform. That was the voice of the people."

The historic victory followed a purge of 37 anti-reform lawmakers in the ruling party, and allowed Koizumi to re-engineer a "new LDP" as a force for change despite five decades of nearly uninterrupted rule. The election marked a staggering setback to the largest opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, which garnered only 113 seats, and dashed hopes that voters would usher in a stable two-party system.

Koizumi, whose silvery pompadour and maverick style broke a mold in Japanese politics, now will forge ahead with a plan to privatize the huge postal system, which also sells insurance and handles savings accounts, controlling assets of more than $3 trillion.

Koizumi called the election after a plan to privatize the postal system was defeated Aug. 8 in the Upper House of the Diet, with the help of rebel LDP lawmakers.

"My first priority will be postal system reform," Koizumi said early Monday, adding that other reforms involving pensions and social security would also advance.

Koizumi now has an unprecedented and historic free hand at government reform. Even if the postal privatization plan sinks in the Upper House again, where opponents still hold sway, the LDP, along with the Buddhist-inspired New Komeito Party, now hold more than the two-thirds of seats in the Lower House, enough to override any Upper House vote.

While focusing solely on postal privatization during the campaign, Koizumi is likely to see the triumph as a mandate on other issues, such as strengthening Japan's security alliance with the United States, and standing up to China, a huge neighbor that is Japan's No. 1 trade partner but also a swiftly rising economic and military rival.

Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada, describing the results as "very hard," quit his leadership post in the early morning and urged his party to seek a new direction.

Many voters saw the election as a watershed for Japan, amid a wobbly recovery from more than a decade of economic stagnation and major demographic shifts.

"The old politicians of the LDP were ousted, and only reformers remain," said Kenji Sakaguchi, a 46-year-old fund manager, voting in the nearby port of Yokohama.

"This election will change Japan," said Koichi Mori, a systems engineer.

Koizumi, an Elvis Presley and opera fan who retains a youthful demeanor at age 63, whipped up unprecedented interest in the snap election.

Seeking to punish foes of his reform agenda, Koizumi fielded novice female politicians dubbed by the media as "ninjas" and "assassins" to challenge anti-reform LDP rebels at the polls, a move quickly labeled as "Koizumi theater" because it enthralled many once-indifferent voters. Voter turnout appeared to be high.

One of the most prominent Koizumi-backed challengers, however, was defeated.

A 32-year-old Internet millionaire, Takifumi Horie, lost in the sixth district of Hiroshima to one of Koizumi's most bitter foes, ousted LDP lawmaker Shizuka Kamei, the NHK television network said.

Koizumi cast the election as a simple referendum on the postal system reform package, saying the matter was a centerpiece of efforts to strengthen Japan.

Framing the election in that manner caught the attention of Japan's 103 million voters amid worries about the future. By 2007, post-war baby boomers will begin retiring en masse, putting pressure on pension and social security programs. Plunging birth rates also mean Japan's population will start to decline.

In the run-up to the vote, optimism over a Koizumi triumph and new impetus to market-friendly reforms buoyed stock markets. Japan's stock indexes hit four-year highs on Friday in the heaviest trading in the 56-year history of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

As word of the sweeping victory spread, party heavyweights began suggesting that Koizumi should stay on as prime minister after his term as LDP president ends in September 2006, but he said he had no plans to do so.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Emiko Doi contributed to this report.)

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

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