Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last weekend dissolved parliament and set a date for a general election that he hopes will turn his resurgent popularity into a mandate for continuing reform of the world's second-largest economy.
Few doubt that the election, on Nov. 9, will be about anything other than the personalities of the two main party leaders, Koizumi -- "the Lion King" -- of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the bachelor aficionado of Elvis and Wagner, with his long, grey mane -- and Naoto Kan, the tetchy, tennis-playing head of the Democratic Party, nicknamed by some the "Irritable Kan."
And the resolution of this battle could not come at a more crucial time for Japan in its attempts to reinvent itself as a thoroughly modern society. After decades punching below its weight in world affairs, hobbled by a postwar constitution that forbade its armed forces to do anything but adopt a defensive role, Japan under Koizumi has begun at last to emerge from its shell.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
For the first time warships were deployed overseas, during the war in Afghanistan. Japan backed the war against Iraq and has emerged as one of the keys to North Korea's nuclear weapons crisis. But while all of this has earned Koizumi kudos abroad, it is domestic matters that will determine whether he extends his mandate for his faltering reform program.
For the battle between the "Lion King" and the "Irritable Kan" will be fought over the narrowest political space -- over the question of whether Koizumi and his monolithic party are capable of carrying out his much-vaunted reforms that brought him to power on a wave of discontent in 2001.
While Koizumi will ask for more patience, more sacrifices and a broader mandate, Kan will challenge not whether Koizumi has the right intentions, but whether he can carry his promises through from atop one of the country's greatest and most troubling institutions -- the LDP itself.
This is the moot point of the Japanese political landscape: whether the country can be transformed by a party so closely associated with all the political and economic ills of five decades; a powerful political machine whose complacency and sclerosis have been matched only by its in-fighting, self-interest and patronage that have at times put the mafia to shame.
Only once in those five decades has the LDP's grip on effective power been broken -- in 1993 -- in the brief interregnum of reformist prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who gave up the fight after less than a year in power, a man to whom some compare Koizumi. It is a comparison Koizumi fosters, working hard on his image as an LDP "outsider."
Koizumi's critics point to his promise to break the LDP's decades-long borrow-and-spend tactics, a promise they say remains unfulfilled in a country with the highest level of debt in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development. They point too to how he broke his promise to cap spending within only his second year in power.
They will tell you too that Koizumi's image as an outsider is something of a fabrication. Third-generation LDP, he is a veteran of the party's factional struggles and of the kind of political deal-making he rejects.
If Koizumi is an "outsider" it is only as an insider's-kind-of-outsider within the LDP whose consolidation of power either signifies the end of an era of dirty, self-interested politics, or a moving around of the chairs among the traditional elite.
It is in this respect that his distinctly untelegenic opponent has his strongest card. For if Kan can lay claim to anything it is being a real outsider as co-founder of the Democratic Party (Minshuto) and a former health minister who blew the whistle on a cover-up of HIV-tainted blood products.
Kan will argue that little has happened to change the parts of the Japanese landscape that most touch middle-class lives after the lost decade of the 1990s.
Banks -- with a few high-profile exceptions -- remain stuck in a cycle of bad debt and renegotiation, while businesses continue to move factories abroad in search of cheaper workforces.
If Koizumi has enjoyed some economic success, critics say, it has been through a combination of good luck and what many believe has been an artificial weakness of the yen against the dollar.
But if Koizumi has failed to live up to many of his promises, his reputation has been buoyed by his victory last month over opponents in a party opposed to his tight fiscal policies who would have removed him. In winning his party's internal leadership election last month, he has rung the death knell for the old men of the once all-powerful Hashimoto faction.
And while the "Irritable Kan" may be praying for voters to reject the LDP as it did once before, all the evidence is that Koizumi will be given more time to fulfil his promise of a new Japan.
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