Reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was re-elected by a landslide as head of Japan's ruling party yesterday, enabling him to keep the premiership and lead his coalition into a general election as early as November.
The win also paved the way for a Cabinet shake-up that will provide clues to how hard he plans to push his agenda of reforms aimed at curbing Japan's massive public debt, curing its ailing banks and getting the economy on track for a long-term recovery.
"This party election was a step to turn the party into a party truly of the people and truly of reform," a forceful-sounding Koizumi told lawmakers after his victory.
Koizumi beat three challengers, all of whom had criticized his tight fiscal stance and urged the government spend more to boost the long-stagnant economy -- now showing signs of recovery.
He won 399 of 657 votes up for grabs, composed of those of the 357 lawmakers in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) plus 300 from local LDP chapters that had been allotted based on ballots of rank-and-file party members.
His closest challenger, former LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei, lagged far behind with 139 votes.
Only a few weeks ago, political analysts were saying that deep-seated dislike of Koizumi's painful policies might push rank-and-file LDP members and lawmakers to deprive him of a first round victory and set the stage for possible defeat in a run-off.
But with expectations growing that Koizumi will call a snap election for parliament's Lower House in November and a poll for the upper chamber looming next July, the prime minister's robust popularity with the voting public appeared the decisive factor.
The maverick leader also won the backing of several anti-reform heavyweights, prompting speculation that he had promised to compromise on policy and cabinet appointments.
Leading the list of ministers who old guard party members want ousted is Economics and Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka, an architect of tough banking reforms.
Takenaka's enemies say his banking policies are hurting many small firms -- a key power base for many LDP lawmakers.
The large margin of victory could strengthen Koizumi's hand against those who want him to tone down his agenda for change, especially his win of some two-thirds of the rank-and-file vote.
"Koizumi got a lot of support from old guard faction members and the question is how much he can ignore them," said Muneyuki Shindo, a political science professor at Chiba University.
"But he said this LDP election was a step toward reform, so he has to avoid a cabinet line-up that suggests to the public that he made back-room deals," Shindo added.
In a show of unity after the bitter battle, the defeated trio joined Koizumi on the stage at LDP headquarters to lock hands and shout "Go LDP!" three times in a traditional post-election chant.
Koizumi, 61, who sprang to power on a wave of grassroots support in April 2001, has been criticized for being both too slow and too hasty on reform initiatives.
His public support rate, however, remains well above 50 percent, perhaps because few see any appealing alternatives.
Challenging sound-bite savvy Koizumi were Kamei, 66 -- a gravelly-voiced advocate of spend-and-build policies who hired a consultant to polish his image -- along with ex-foreign minister Masahiko Komura, 61, and ex-transport minister Takao Fujii, 60.