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Thursday, March 25, 1999

Local Elections '99: LDP tying up with opposition


and YOKO HANI Staff writers

Tokyo gubernatorial elections have often been nerve-racking for the Liberal Democratic Party, and this time around is no different with the party's leaders displaying a remarkable lack of confidence and unity.

Among 12 gubernatorial elections slated for April 11, the Tokyo race is considered the most crucial and the one most likely to affect the fate of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

The LDP has suffered two consecutive losses in the capital. If it is defeated again, criticism will no doubt mount against the LDP leadership.

While political observers predict any damage from a defeat in Tokyo to Obuchi himself would most likely be limited, they say the LDP's safe-bet strategy of allying with rival parties in the elections may further disillusion voters.

The LDP is supporting candidates jointly with opposition parties in 10 of the 12 gubernatorial races April 11. "Political parties cannot even decide whether to field their own candidates," said Takeshi Sasaki, a professor of politics at the University of Tokyo. "They have lost confidence, and such an attitude by the parties will alienate voters, especially those with no party affiliation."

Sasaki said the Tokyo gubernatorial race provides the best opportunity for major parties to regain the confidence they lost four years ago when they were embarrassed by the victory of Yukio Aoshima, an independent, but they appear to have botched the chance by failing to present a clear vision.

In 1995, Aoshima scored a surprise victory over Nobuo Ishihara, a former elite bureaucrat jointly backed by most major parties except for the Japanese Communist Party, by attracting unaffiliated voters.

During his four years in office, however, Aoshima disappointed the public, accomplishing little beyond fulfilling his major campaign pledge of cancelling the Tokyo City Expo. He has opted not to seek a second term.

Like it did four years ago, the LDP has put priority on cooperating with other parties to ensure a victory.

At first, LDP leaders, including Obuchi, indicated they were ready to support Kunio Hatoyama, a former deputy head of the Democratic Party of Japan, but DPJ leaders rejected the LDP's overtures.

The LDP then turned to Yasushi Akashi, a former U.N. undersecretary general who, the party leaders believed, could expect support from New Komeito, with whom he has friendly relations, and from its biggest supporter, Soka Gakkai, the nation's largest lay Buddhist organization, which is believed to control nearly 800,000 faithful voters in Tokyo.

However, the LDP leadership's decision triggered a revolt by former Foreign Minister Koji Kakizawa, an LDP Diet member from Tokyo whom the party's Tokyo chapter wanted to field in the race. After the LDP officially urged Akashi to run, Kakizawa defied the party by declaring his candidacy as an independent.

While Kakizawa created a divide, popular novelist and former LDP Lower House member Shintaro Ishihara gave the party's faithful an even more tantalizing tangent to follow by belatedly throwing his name into the mix.

In a recent opinion poll, Ishihara was leading the race, Hatoyama was third, Kakizawa fourth and Akashi fifth.

Ouch.

That was the LDP leadership you just heard yelling.

In fact, the pain has been so acute that party Secretary General Yoshiro Mori has indicated the government should consider steps to control media voter surveys ahead of elections.

"The LDP does not think about Tokyoites," DPJ leader Naoto Kan said. "It is only concerned with the impact on the Obuchi government in case its candidate is defeated."

The LDP also feuded over the selection of a candidate for the 1991 Tokyo gubernatorial race.

While its Tokyo chapter supported then incumbent Shunichi Suzuki, the party leaders, in a tieup with Komeito, the original New Komeito, backed popular TV news anchorman Hisanori Isomura.

Suzuki's victory led then LDP Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa -- who now heads the Liberal Party -- to step down. Political analysts say that if Akashi loses, there may be another minor shakeup in the LDP's leadership, with Mori seen as a likely target of criticism.

But the chances of a groundswell of change are remote.

Takeshi Nakai, professor of politics at Seikei University, noted that lawmakers outside the LDP mainstream currently do not have enough power to topple the party leadership, making it highly remote that the Obuchi government will be severely damaged by local poll results.

"Local elections are different from major races on the national-level, such as the Lower House and Upper House elections, and Akashi himself is not even an LDP Diet member," he said.

There is speculation that if the LDP suffers severe losses in the coming elections, the party leadership may try to control the damage by advancing the date for the party presidential race, currently set for September.



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The Japan Times

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