IT IS an election without precedent in many ways, so the outcome on Sunday September 11th could yet defy the pollsters. But only days before the voting, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held such a commanding lead in opinion surveys that it was widely expected to retain its grip on power, as it has done for all but ten months of the past half century. If you were to conclude from this, however, that the election has lost its suspense, you would be wrong.
For Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi (pictured), is taking on two very different opponents in the election that he decided to call a month ago, after his plan to privatise Japan's postal-savings bank failed to clear parliament. One opponent is the group of LDP rebels who voted against the privatisation plan in the lower house, and who therefore represent one of the most ferociously anti-reformist wings of the party. Mr Koizumi's other opponent is the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has improved the country's democracy greatly over the past few years by giving the LDP some competition. Ideally, Mr Koizumi would destroy the rebels on Sunday without doing too much damage to the DPJ. Neither outcome is assured.
It is clear, though, that many of Japan's voters are energised, and mostly for reform. Mr Koizumi's attack on the rebels has clearly inspired much of the country. He has sharply boosted his standing in the polls, and many young and urban voters who have shunned the ruling party in recent years now say that they support the prime minister and his purged LDP. Opinion surveys suggest that the Japanese are keener to vote this time than they have been in many years.
Japan badly needs some reform. While it's manufactoring efficiency is to be envied, it's protectionist policies and domestic over regulation have stymied it's economic growth for over a decade now. Internal markets are more important than external ones for economic strength and Japan, for all it's vaunted glory of the past has never been strong internally.
Here's hoping that Koizumi's reforms are successful.