TOKYO - An upbeat Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stared down critics calling for his resignation yesterday, declaring he would not be pushed from office nor blown off his reformist course by disappointing results in elections for Japan's Upper House.
The 49 seats won by Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party fell short of the 51 he set as his target when the campaign began in June. Although the opposition Democratic Party of Japan gained 12 seats, the conservative-minded LDP and its junior party allies retained their working majority in the Upper House.
"There's no damage," a smiling Koizumi told reporters at his party's cramped headquarters in Tokyo. "It won't develop into a question of whether I have to take responsibility."
"Taking responsibility" is a political euphemism in Japan for resigning, and it dominated conversation among the country's political class in the days before yesterday's elections. For Koizumi, the final seat tally - though one less than the DPJ total - qualified as a disaster dodged.
But the vote may also herald the beginning of a two-party system in Japanese politics. For the first time, the usual scattergun anti-LDP vote coalesced around the DPJ, the newly formed liberal alternative.
The DPJ opposes Koizumi on the two most emotive issues facing Japan. The party is critical of his reforms to an overburdened pension system in a country with a shriveling birthrate and the longest life expectancy in the world. The DPJ also opposes Koizumi's decision to support President Bush by sending 550 ground troops to Iraq, an act that stretches interpretations of the peace clause in Japan's constitution.
"The people have issued a resounding `no' to Koizumi's policies," DPJ party leader Katsuya Okada said after the vote.
Until recently, the prospect of Koizumi being forced from office before the general election in two years seemed unlikely. His image as a loveably roguish politician from outside the LDP's traditional power centers had translated into high poll ratings.
That support crumbled drastically in the past month, when voters soured on the prime minister over his handling of pension reform legislation passed in June. The government raised premiums and cut future benefits - all while Koizumi tried to explain why he and seven of his Cabinet ministers failed to pay their own pension premiums years before.
The ensuing outcry turned Koizumi's once-modest goal of 51 Upper House seats into the symbolic threshold for political survival. Although real power rests with parliament's Lower House, two previous LDP prime ministers had resigned after poor Upper House showings.
With some polls a week before the vote predicting 41 seats for the LDP, Koizumi spent the campaign's final days desperately trying to lower expectations. He concluded his campaign standing atop a truck at a busy Tokyo intersection Saturday night, his voice hoarse and cracking, pleading for a mandate to continue with economic reforms.
The reaction from the crowd was polite: a fluttering of Japanese flags from a few hundred supporters, but no hint of the squeals and swoons Koizumi once inspired at rallies.
"The LDP conducted an old-fashioned campaign this time," said Masajuro Shiokawa, a former Koizumi finance minister. "They should have discussed the social service and defense issues more carefully."
Koizumi acknowledged that failure when he showed up at a glum LDP headquarters two hours after the polls closed. "I will make more effort to gain the confidence of citizens," he said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.