Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged voters to back the privatization of Japan's postal service while his rival attacked the plan yesterday, wrapping up a dramatic campaign for parliamentary elections expected to deliver victory to the ruling party.
The ballot today for the 480-seat lower house of parliament was widely seen just the way Koizumi wanted it: as a referendum for his project to split up and sell Japan Post's mail, insurance and savings services, creating the world's largest private bank.
"Are public employees the only ones who can take care of important jobs?" Koizumi thundered to a crowd at a Tokyo train station. "Privatization of the postal service is the best way to cut down on the number of civil servants in Japan."
In another part of the city, his main rival, Katsuya Okada, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), drove home his message that the country has more pressing concerns than the postal service.
"Japan faces problems of decreasing of population, aging society and increasing of national debts," Okada said. "Mr. Koizumi sounds as if life will be all rosy if the postal service is privatization, but no one takes what he says seriously."
Opinion polls throughout the campaign showed Koizumi with rising support since he dissolved the powerful lower house on Aug. 8 and called snap elections after his postal privatization plan was torpedoed in the upper house.
The Asahi newspaper yesterday showed 42 percent of respondents wanted Koizumi to continue as prime minister, while only 17 supported an Okada-led government. The paper surveyed 1,031 people by phone on Thursday and Friday.
"If not Koizumi, who else can be prime minister?" asked Kiyoko Takasu, 44, part-time worker for a credit union bank. "He is more articulate than past prime ministers, so that's why people can identify with him."
The balance of the election for the 480-seat chamber, however, rested with a large block of undecided voters.
Success at the polls for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would be a personal triumph for Koizumi, whose reform plan would put Japan Post's ?330 trillion (US$3 billion) in assets in private hands.
An LDP win would also bolster Koizumi's standing as one of the most dynamic Japanese political personalities of the postwar era.
The campaign that followed has been the most riveting in recent memory in Japan, as Koizumi purged 37 anti-reform lawmakers from his party and drafted celebrity candidates, including a former beauty queen and an Internet mogul, to run as "assassins" against his enemies.
The drama has fascinated a country long accustomed to highly scripted campaigns without burning issues or distinctive personalities. One poll forecast turnout would be 75 percent, a hefty jump over the 60 percent participation in the last lower house elections in 2003.
A strong showing by the LDP would also reverse the growth of the Democrats, the party that many had hoped would turn Japan's essentially one-party state into a competitive, two-party system.
The DPJ made impressive gains in elections in 2003 and last year, and leader Okada's dead-earnest persona and attention to policy details were considered by supporters to be an antidote to Koizumi's sometimes flippant management style.
Okada has struggled to shift the focus on what he and other skeptics argued were Koizumi's shortcomings -- the ailing pension system, the country's mounting debt, and persistence of corruption and wasteful spending.