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Japanese favor reform coalition in parliament

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TOKYO — Parlaying popular appeal into victory in parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appeared Monday to have won the mandate for his prescription of tough love for the Japanese economy. But doubts have already begun to emerge about Koizumi's ability to succeed.

The gains made by the Liberal Democratic Party in elections Sunday for Japan's upper house of parliament showed that there is still widespread public support for changes that promise to hurt the deeply troubled economy before they cure it.

"The people showed how much hope they have for our reforms, so we must do our utmost to implement them," Koizumi said Monday in a postelection news conference.

It was unclear, however, whether voters' aspirations and the force of a charismatic leader would be able to overcome encrusted interests that have built up over five decades.

"Koizumi barks a lot, but I don't think he has the strength to really change things," said Masumi Ishikawa, a professor of politics at Obirin University. "When bureaucrats and lawmakers beholden to special interests get together to oppose reform there will be no hope."

The three-party ruling alliance, led by Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, won 78 of the 121 seats up for election in the 247-member upper house, the weaker of parliament's two chambers. The coalition had needed to win at least 63 seats to keep its majority.

The coalition gained one additional seat from its previous tally of 77, despite a reduction in the total number of seats in the chamber from 250 to 247.

The increase in the coalition's overall strength was seen as a major victory since the conservative alliance appeared doomed just a few months ago, before Koizumi swept to power.

National broadcaster NHK and other media said the LDP won 64 seats, with 13 seats going to the Komei Party and one seat for the Conservative Party. Full official results were not to be available until Monday evening, election officials said.

The apparent mandate to implement what has been touted as the biggest overhaul of Japan's economy since the end of World War II was tempered by weak voter turnout of 56.4 percent, a sign that some voters may be losing their appetite for Koizumi's prescription of pain.

"Turnout didn't go up despite voter-friendly weather; there was no typhoon, it wasn't too hot. It actually went down," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst at UBS Warburg. "That means people had second thoughts about Koizumi's reform."

Still, Sunday's result neutralized one fear among pro-reform factions in the ruling coalition: that a poor showing would be the only excuse LDP conservatives would need to dump Koizumi and engineer a return to status quo politics.

The left-of-center Asahi newspaper expressed optimism, predicting in an editorial Monday that "there's no turning back now" on structural reform.

The economy could use some changes. Japan is in the 11th year of a painful slowdown, unemployment is stuck at a record-high 4.9 percent. In more bad news, the government said Monday that industrial production in June fell 0.7 percent.

And fears that Koizumi's reforms will lead to short-term economic pain sent Japan's benchmark Nikkei stock index down 1.85 percent Monday to its lowest level in more than 16 years.

Koizumi — who enjoys support ratings of about 70 percent — promised to answer critics who say he has failed to provide details on his proposed reforms.

"There were things during the campaigning that we couldn't unveil," he said. "We will now reveal the reforms."

He also said the result of the election showed there was no need to reshuffle his Cabinet.

It was not immediately clear, however, how much the LDP's victory was due to support for Koizumi's ideas or to the personality cult that has sprung up around him.

In guiding his party to victory in Sunday's poll, Koizumi had an important advantage that his rivals lacked — the ability to play the media like politicians in the United States or Europe.

While opposition leaders looked perfectly groomed as results rolled in late Sunday, Koizumi faced the press sporting stubble, his eyes bloodshot and his tie askew — an exhausted look that was sure to have played well with voters who like to see politicians give it their all.

And as long as that electorate remains behind him, many experts say that nobody will dare to oppose his plan to overturn pork barrel politics by slashing public spending, cleaning up bad debts and deregulating coddled industries.

"The lesson here is that even a dinosaur like the LDP can be resurrected if you listen to what the people want," said Kuniko Inoguchi, a political scientist at Sophia University. "We're seeing a people's revolution."

Inoguchi said she believes Sunday's electoral result represents a sea-change in Japanese society, with voters trying to build the foundations for a stronger society rather than obtain immediate economic benefits.

"Japanese people are looking beyond short-term economic growth to a long-term vision of building a more fair, transparent and human society," she said.