- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

TOKYO — Japan headed to the polls today in a closely watched snap election forecast to deliver Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a new mandate to reform the world’s second largest economy and his fractious party.

As Mr. Koizumi made his final campaign stops yesterday, making speeches at train stations, shopping malls and community centers, yet another newspaper poll predicted victory for the charismatic leader, who has gambled his career on breaking up Japan’s vast postal system.

“In order to sustain the pension system and to lighten the burden [of taxpayers], we must privatize the post office,” he told voters at Fukaya train station northwest of Tokyo.

Katsuya Okada, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), also toured the Greater Tokyo area, where surveys show many urban voters were still undecided yesterday.

The influential Asahi Shimbun became the latest newspaper to indicate a win for Mr. Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), publishing a survey that showed public support for the LDP had risen four points to 36 percent.

Backing for the opposition DPJ edged up from 14 percent to 16 percent in the survey of 1,031 voters taken late last week, the daily said.

It was more good news for Mr. Koizumi, a strong ally of President Bush who saw the stock market rally to a new four-year high on Friday in an apparent bet on political stability and a win by the market-friendly prime minister.

Mr. Koizumi called the snap election to push forward his plan to privatize the national post office, a move he says would inject new life into the world’s second largest economy and clean up a culture of political patronage.

The ruling LDP has almost exclusively focused on postal reform during campaigning. The DPJ has promised greater reforms, arguing that Mr. Koizumi is mistakenly obsessed with the post office, which is in effect the world’s biggest bank.

Japan Post sits on more than $3 trillion in assets, with its 25,000 branches used for savings and insurance. It has a cozy relationship with the ruling party and is said to be able to mobilize 1 million votes.

Mr. Koizumi has been determined for years to privatize the postal system, saying that the reform would stimulate the economy and weaken the political influence of postal bureaucrats.

Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Okada have promised that they would resign as party leaders if their parties lose in the election. Mr. Koizumi also has said he would step down anyway in a year, when his term as the LDP president expires.

If he wins the election, Mr. Koizumi has said his government would again submit to the parliament a previously defeated postal privatization bill.

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