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Japanese voters warm to 'popularity politics'

Sunday's national elections are expected to move Japan closer to a true two-party system.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2003


Japanese are not known to swoon over their politicians. But that's changed, a bit. With national elections taking place here Sunday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is hitting the hustings with his bouncy hair and moderate right-wing patriotism - "Japan, let's move!" - and voters have been shouting back in what seems an emotional reverie.

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Sunday's election is expected to highlight three significant changes taking place in Japan:

It appears the campaign message of youthful change and "reform" brought by Mr. Koizumi is well on its way to establishing a new "popularity politics," in which media savvy and fashionable appeal are as important as old-boy networks or specific policies in acceding to power.

At the same time, restless Japanese voters appear for the first time to be moving their government, ruled for most of the postwar period by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) machine, closer to a "two party" system.

The campaign has become a race between the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto) - expected to win more than 500 seats between them - while a half-dozen other parties, including the formerly powerful Communists and Social Democrats, take about 70 seats among them.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest long-term significance, is the issue of "constitutional change" that lies beneath this election. The gusto with which Koizumi's LDP and the rising nationalist factions in Japan are talking about reform, about Japan's greater role in the world, and about defense against neighborhood bullies like North Korea, is loosening major postwar taboos about sending troops abroad, and about changing a constitution written under Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the postwar occupation.

Sunday represents the first time Koizumi has actually stood for a general election. In 2001, he came to power in an upper-house vote as a relative unknown, the head of a small LDP faction without a real power base. He was the eighth prime minister in 12 years.

Koizumi overcame deep skepticism about his staying power; his risky strategy of going to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il solidified his position in Japan when the North Korean leader actually apologized for a history of kidnapping Japanese.

Should Koizumi score well Sunday, some analysts say the prime minister's stature will deepen further.

Koizumi may gain the political clout to begin the overdue reform of Japanese banking, construction, pensions, and the post office - the systems that are currently putting Japan into a deep financial hole but that Koizumi has only so far talked about reforming.

Many in Japan remain skeptical.

"So far, no party has put forward a reform candidate who can present any specific reform that an ordinary Japanese can understand," says Takao Toshikawa, editor in chief of Tokyo Insideline, a political newsletter.

The hottest single issue this election is Japan's ailing pension system, which many younger Japanese feel is unsustainable, and have stopped paying into - even as the society is graying.