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Japanese ruling coalition keeps upper house; Koizumi sees mandate for reform
Associated Press photo Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), flashes a victory sign in front of party candidates' names as he waits the returns of the upper house of Parliament elections at party headquarters in Tokyo Sunday evening, July 29, 2001. Japan's ruling coalition won a majority of the seats in the upper house of Parliament in elections Sunday, news reports said, citing unofficial voting results.

TOKYO (AP) – Japan’s ruling coalition swept to victory Sunday in elections for the upper house of Parliament, a vote of confidence the popular prime minister said would build steam for his plans to overhaul the stagnant economy.

The three-party coalition of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won at least 76 of the 121 contested seats in the 247-member upper house, the weaker of Parliament’s two chambers. The coalition, led by Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party, had needed to win at least 63 seats to keep its majority.

An exhausted Koizumi, who enjoys 70 percent approval ratings and the popularity of a rock star, said the results are a boon to his plans to restructure the economy, which is stuck in the 11th year of a painful slowdown.

“We have reached the goal of winning the majority for the coalition, and I feel very relieved,” Koizumi said. “The number of seats matters because we are the party supporting reform, and I expect the winners will work as the driving force of our reforms.”

Koizumi warned, however, that ill-effects linked to the reforms – high unemployment, for example – would probably delay a full recovery for Japan’s economy by two or three years.

Sunday’s results were a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Liberal Democrats, who just a few months ago were led by the deeply unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and had been expected to suffer badly in the upper house vote.

But Koizumi stormed to power in April with ambitious plans of overturning the LDP’s long-standing pork-barrel politics by slashing public spending, cleaning up a bad debt crisis and dismantling regulations that protect large sectors of the economy.

Early Monday, national broadcaster NHK said the ruling coalition had won a combined 76 seats, a slight expansion of the alliance’s clout in the chamber. The LDP won 63 seats, with 12 seats going to the Komei Party and one seat for the Conservative Party.

Koizumi is a member of the powerful lower house and was not a candidate on Sunday.

The premier’s allies in the LDP were quick to claim a mandate for change.

“The election results mean that the public wants the Koizumi administration to go ahead with the promise of reforms without sanctuary,” LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki said.

The opposition, meanwhile, conceded defeat, bowing to widespread public support for Koizumi.

“Unfortunately, it seems we are not going to make our biggest goal of forcing the ruling coalition to lose the majority,” said Naoto Kan of the opposition Democratic Party. “Mr. Koizumi was hugely popular.”

It was unclear whether the victory would translate into an easier ride for Koizumi.

He faces stiff opposition in the conservative wing of his own party, and many of the LDP’s supporters in the countryside will be hurt by his reforms. During his campaign, Koizumi suggested that he would rather split the LDP than bend to anti-reformists within the party.

LDP old-guard lawmaker Mikio Aoki, however, said it was natural that lawmakers who were helped to victory by Koizumi would now support his proposals.

“Of course we will cooperate with Mr. Koizumi’s reforms, because we have promised that to the people,” he told reporters at LDP headquarters.

Koizumi also faces some resistance among people worried that his reforms will impose too much pain and that he will fail to put adequate safeguards in place to help those put out of work. The jobless rate is already at a record 4.9 percent, and the stock market hit a 16-year low over the past week.

“I don’t think the LDP is looking out for the welfare of people in this country,” said Reiko Ohara, a 51-year-old employee of an industry organization who said she voted for the Japan Communist Party. Communists account for only a small fraction of Parliament.

There was also criticism that Koizumi has not been specific enough about his ideas, and has built his popularity on his stylish mannerisms and impassioned – but vague – promises of change.

“Everyone is talking about reforms, but nobody knows what the reforms are or how they will be conducted,” said Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Liberal Party. “Voters said they want LDP to continue what they are doing. Too bad that’s what they decided.”

Half the seats in the 247-member upper house go up for election every three years. The ruling coalition holds 61 seats that are not up for election this year, meaning victory in at least 63 seats on Sunday gave the alliance a minimum 124-seat majority.

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