Junichiro Koizumi scored a political triumph

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi scored a political triumph as his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in elections touted as a referendum on his push to privatize Japan's cash-swelled postal system.

LDP's final tally from Sunday's vote stood at 296 seats, public broadcaster NHK reported Monday, greatly above the 249 seats it held when Koizumi dissolved Parliament's lawmaking lower house last month, and far more than the 241 seats needed for a majority.

Combined with ally New Komei Party's seats, the ruling coalition had more than 327 - a two-thirds majority that would enable it to override votes in the upper house. Official results were expected early Monday morning, but election officials said a minor counting error in one prefecture was delaying their release. Voter turnout climbed over 7 points from the last lower house elections in 2003 to 67.52 percent, Kyodo News agency estimated.

The results keep a staunch ally of U.S. President George W. Bush in power. Koizumi is expected to stand by his dispatch of troops to support the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and is also a strong supporter of the continued presence of 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan. The opposition Democrats had pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Victory was sweet for the popular leader, who called the elections after defections within his party last month scuttled a legislative package he had championed for breaking up and privatizing Japan Post. He kept the campaign focused on his plan, overshadowing the opposition and also rejuvenating the image of the LDP from staid ruling party to agent of dynamic change.

Along with delivering mail, the postal service has savings and insurance programs with US$3 trillion in deposits, in effect making it the world's largest bank. Koizumi contends putting those operations in private hands will bring more efficient lending of that cash and produce a bigger boost for the economy, which is the world's second biggest but has stagnated for years.

That seemed to resonate with a public worried that bloated government bureaucracies are sapping economic growth as the aging of the population raises questions about how Japan will pay for future retirees. Postal savings have long been used by the LDP as a slush fund for public works projects accused of waste and corruption.

Though postal reform was likely to stay firmly at the top of Koizumi's agenda, the landslide victory will strengthen his hand in pushing other changes, including an overhaul of the national pension system and his effort to rid the LDP of pork-barrel politics and refocus it on policy.

With voter attention riveted on his battle against the LDP defectors _ he virtually booted all 37 out of the party, and then sent out celebrity candidates to oppose them _ the main opposition party found itself on the sidelines. NHK said the centrist Democratic Party's tally stood at 113 seats, a disheartening plunge from its previous 175 seats. Democrat leader Katsuya Okada announced early Monday that he would step down as party head to take responsibility for the defeat.

Japanese media reported that LDP members had begun calling for Koizumi to stay on after his term as party president ends next September. Koizumi has said he intends to step down, and he repeated that vow Sunday. The elections were sure to have deep repercussions on Japan's political landscape and speed the pace of government reforms.

The opposition's meltdown was all the more stunning because it came despite a high voter turnout, which usually plays in its favor. One area that probably won't change is Japan's strained relationship with some of its neighbors, which have been angered by Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo war shrine that critics say glorifies Japan's militaristic past, AP reports.

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