- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

TOKYO — Japan’s opposition made gains in elections yesterday, narrowing the ruling coalition’s majority in parliament and dampening its hopes for a strong mandate to carry out ambitious economic and political reform.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party said it still had the public’s support after its first election test in the lower house of parliament since Mr. Koizumi came to power more than two years ago.

“We’ll be able to continue with a stable administration. I’m relieved,” Liberal Democratic Party chief Shinzo Abe said after results showed his party and its two junior partners had clinched control.

Together, the LDP-led coalition took 275 seats, enough to keep a majority in the 480-member lower house and name all committee chairs, according to official results collated by public broadcaster NHK after all constituencies had reported.

The total fell short of the coalition’s previous 287 seats, and Mr. Koizumi’s LDP scored 237, below the simple majority it had by itself before the election.

The results showed a big boost for the opposition Democratic Party, from 137 before the elections to 177. Party chief Naoto Kan was upbeat about his party’s performance.

“I can barely speak,” Mr. Kan said from party headquarters in Tokyo. “I think the voters appreciated our focus on policies, and I am pleased.”

While Mr. Koizumi was confident that his party — which has held power nearly nonstop for 50 years — would keep its coalition majority, even he seemed surprised at the Democrats’ showing.

“I thought to myself that the Democrats are putting up a good fight,” he said. “Maybe we’re really moving toward a two-party system.”

Election officials said final results would be announced later today.

The turnout in yesterday’s voting was about 52 percent, down from the 62.5 percent who voted in the last lower house election in 2000, when the LDP cruised to victory.

Earlier, Mr. Abe said the LDP might lose its single-party majority, but insisted the coalition still would have a public mandate for reform.

“If the three parties of the ruling coalition achieve a majority, I will take that as a sign of having won the public’s trust,” he said.

The impact of swing voters as well as the public’s reaction to issues such as Mr. Koizumi’s push to send peacekeepers to Iraq could have affected his margin of victory. The Democratic Party has fiercely opposed Mr. Koizumi’s Iraq policies.

Other hot topics included a proposal to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution to give the military more flexibility in the post-September 11 era of terrorism, and the reform of public pensions — a big concern in a country with one of world’s fastest-aging societies.

But the economy remained the public’s top priority.

Mr. Koizumi credited his reforms for spurring a fledgling recovery from more than a decade of economic stagnation. He has warned voters not to derail the rebound by ousting him.

Mr. Kan accused the LDP of being long on promises and short on results, and said he could do better.

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