Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, who has long been regarded as an eccentric but reform-minded politician, has been elected president of the governing Liberal Democratic Party. When the four-way race started, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was the front-runner and odds-on favorite. Yet Mr. Koizumi caught up with and passed Mr. Hashimoto during preliminary polling, when the votes of local LDP chapter members were counted. In those preliminary ballots, Mr. Koizumi won 123 votes out of a total of 141. This upset determined the outcome of the decisive final voting by 346 LDP Diet members, which was held on Tuesday. In that ballot, Mr. Koizumi obtained 175 votes, which, when combined with his overwhelming majority in the primaries, gave him the party presidency.

Indeed, the fact that a preliminary election was even held was the most crucial factor in Mr. Koizumi’s victory over Mr. Hashimoto. Mr. Hashimoto heads the largest faction that has effectively controlled the LDP for decades. The “winner-takes-all” principle was adopted in the preliminary voting, which turned out to be a kind of popularity vote. In such a contest, Mr. Koizumi, who is widely regarded as “a character” among the public, received overwhelming support from rank-and-file party members who are fed up with the control of the LDP by party seniors.

The winner-takes-all rules let Mr. Koizumi sweep preliminary votes even in regions that were thought to be Mr. Hashimoto’s power bases. In fact, Mr. Koizumi’s strong performance in the local voting virtually made Tuesday’s election by LDP Diet members — which is usually critical — a mere formality. It apparently created an atmosphere in which attempts to turn the tables in a final vote by LDP Diet members would be seen as moves to thwart the popular will.

This electoral phenomenon indicates that a political party without firm ideological principles — even one that has been in power for a long period — could melt down once it has lost touch with reality. In fact, the LDP’s inability to sever cozy relations with particular business interests, its determination to rely on public-works projects to invigorate the economy and its dependence on the ossified seniority system in the party hierarchy — all these are convincing proof that it has failed to keep pace with changes in the nation’s political and economic situations.

Party members are concerned that if the LDP remains committed to these outdated practices, it would again suffer a fatal loss in the Upper House election slated for July. This obliged many rank-and-file members participating in the primaries to reject the three other candidates who represented the LDP establishment. They have learned serious lessons from the embarrassing defeats in a series of local elections in the past year. The dynamics of the party’s organizational machinery did not work, for example, in the gubernatorial elections in Nagano last October and in Chiba in March.

In another significant development in this election, the largest faction led by Mr. Hashimoto was unable to exert any factional or partisan influence to turn the ballot in his favor. This is a marked contrast to the role the largest faction has played in the LDP over the past three decades since it was founded by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

Riding on the strength of numerical superiority, this faction has been “the party within the party,” which often exerted stronger power than the party executive machine. As a result, the LDP government has often been said to be a two-tier power system: When the head of that faction was in power, the government could be monolithic. When the faction was on the sidelines after its leading members had been involved in scandal, the group continued to pull strings behind the scenes, playing the role of kingmaker.

This time around, however, the Hashimoto faction has been unable to play this role. The significance of this change should be born in mind by Mr. Koizumi, who claims to be a reformist. He must recognize that faction-based distribution of Cabinet and party executive posts often posed an insuperable obstacle to important reforms initiated by the prime minister. It is common knowledge that under Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, party seniors in such posts checked his attempts to exercise any leadership in making major policies.

The experience in this party presidential election can mark a real rebirth of the LDP. Mr. Koizumi must lead party members toward such a resurrection. Now, we can only wait and see whether he will. His choice of party executives and Cabinet members will serve as a crucial litmus test.

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