TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's long-ruling party was on track to win a majority on its own in next week's election, media surveys showed on Sunday, the latest sign that his gamble on postal reform was paying off.
The surveys by four national newspapers, a metropolitan daily and Kyodo news agency also forecast Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, the New Komeito, would together win more than 252 seats in the 480-seat chamber.
A stable majority of that size would allow the ruling coalition to chair all committees in the powerful lower house and help Koizumi forge ahead with his broader agenda to downsize the government and repair public finances.
Surveys showed, however, that as many as 40 percent of voters, however, had yet to decide how to vote in an election in which the LDP and its main opposition rival agree broadly on the need for economic reform, but differ sharply on foreign policy.
The main opposition Democratic Party has pledged to pull Japanese troops out of Iraq when their current mandate ends in December, and to repair ties with China and South Korea chilled during Koizumi's more than four years in office.
Koizumi, 63, called the election after LDP lawmakers sided with the opposition to kill bills to privatise the postal system, a financial giant with some $3 trillion in assets that has been criticised for funding wasteful public works projects.
He then stripped the rebels of party backing and sent rival candidates -- many of them women and mostly novices -- to oppose them, casting the election as a referendum on postal reform as a symbol of his reform programme.
The drama, played out on TV, has bolstered support for the LDP to the dismay of the Democrats, whom many analysts had thought would benefit from the ruling party split.
"The response is amazing," Koizumi told public broadcaster NHK, looking relaxed, if weary, in a yellow open-necked shirt.
"I feel that many people have come to agree with postal privatisation."
WON'T EXTEND TERM
The LDP has ruled on its own or in a coalition for most of the past half century, but has not won a majority at the polls since 1990, media noted, although it has cobbled together post-election majorities by absorbing independents.
The wavy-haired, maverick Koizumi sprang to power in 2001 on a wave of popular support for his promises to reform both the stalled economy and the scandal-tainted LDP. He is already Japan's longest-serving prime minister in two decades.
But Koizumi told NHK that even if his coalition won, he would not stay on as prime minister past September 2006, although some party heavyweights have suggested he should serve another year.
The Mainichi newspaper forecast that the LDP would win between 248 and 294 seats, while the Asahi daily put the range at between 234 and 276.
The opposition Democratic Party was likely to lose 20 or more of the 175 seats it held before the lower house was dissolved, the newspapers forecast, although some surveys left open the prospect that the party could gain some ground.
"There is good response, but we must accept the media predictions as severe," Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada told NHK. "The real battle will be in this last week.
Okada and his party have insisted that other issues, such as reform of the creaking pension system and repairing ties with China and South Korea, are more important than postal reform.
Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine for war dead, where convicted war criminals are also honoured, have outraged Beijing and Seoul. But he said again on Sunday he saw nothing wrong with the pilgrimages.
"Is it really all right for other countries to interfere in matters of the heart?" Koizumi said in a round-table debate on a private TV channel. "I don't understand why I shouldn't go."
The LDP had 249 seats before the lower house was dissolved and its partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, had 34.
But Koizumi refused to give official party backing to 37 LDP rebels who voted against his bills to privatise Japan Post.