Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi immediately called a snap election Monday after losing a key vote on postal-system reform in the nation's upper house, setting the stage for a possible political realignment and a chance for the opposition to make a grab for power.
Mr. Koizumi pushed hard for privatization, but conservatives in his own party, who garner both funding for public-works projects from the postal-savings system and support at the polls from postal workers, crossed the floor to defeat the bills.
Dissolving the lower house to hold a poll, slated for Sept. 11, may backfire on the maverick Japanese leader. Trends in the past few elections have moved Japan toward a more balanced two-party system, and this vote could finally see the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) booted from office for only the second time in 50 years, say analysts and lawmakers.
"The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will most likely win due to the internal conflict among LDP factions," says Kazuhiko Ozawa, a professor of politics at Obirin University.
Opposition parties are rubbing their hands in delight. DPJ leader Katsuya Okada recently set out his plans for a new, more accommodating direction in Japanese foreign policy as a response to ongoing tensions with China and other nearby Asian countries. On the domestic front, he has indicated he aims to root out graft and end the cozy ties between politics and such industries as construction and road building. He also wants more pro-active child-support policies in a bid to stem Japan's declining birth rate.
The last time the LDP was pushed briefly into opposition in 1993, senior bureaucrats in various ministries stymied the reformist policy goals of an inexperienced coalition government. To avert this kind of resistance, Mr. Okada has said he will replace those in public posts above a certain rank with political appointments.
But any DPJ government would face more problems than a simple lack of experience. Because a snap election can only be called for the lower house, the LDP will continue to hold its slim majority in the upper house, leaving the bicameral system hung between the two major parties. The DPJ must win two-thirds of the lower house seats to be able to pass any legislation rejected by the upper house. If the DPJ falls short, they may have to seek an awkward alliance with other parties.
The DPJ comprise an implausible grouping of liberals and right-wing politicians with sometimes extreme views. Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ vice-president, unleashed a political storm in 2003 when local media reported he said that to deter any Chinese threats, Japan could produce "thousands of nuclear warheads" from plutonium created by its commercial nuclear reactors. Analysts say internal frictions in the DPJ would be likely to undermine its ability to govern effectively.
Indeed, a change of government could spark a period of broad political reorganization as parties adjust alliances and lawmakers seek likeminded policy partners.