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Thursday, June 22, 2000

ESTRANGED BEDFELLOWS IN TOKYO'S NO. 4

LDP snubs own to back ally's man


Staff writer

Kensaku Morita, who before the dissolution of the Lower House was a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, is running as an independent in the Tokyo No. 4 constituency in Sunday's election because of what he calls an "unreasonable" decision by the LDP to back a candidate from one of the party's coalition partners.

Morita, 50, an actor-turned-politician, was one of the LDP members who did not receive the formal support of the party in their single-seat constituencies due to the decision to support candidates from the other parties within the ruling bloc — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party.

The LDP is officially supporting Morita's rival, Otohiko Endo, 53, who was a New Komeito lawmaker before the chamber's dissolution. Endo won his seat in the 1996 general election through proportional representation, where voters choose a party rather than a specific candidate.

Securing a majority in the Lower House election is a must for the LDP and its allies to maintain their coalition. Thus, ahead of official campaigning on Jun. 13, the three parties made adjustments that got rid of competition among their candidates in 32 of the 300 single-seat constituencies.

Such a strategy, despite the ultimate aim of the bloc retaining the majority it held before the election was called, has caused a dilemma for the parties.

The LDP consequently did not field its own candidates in 14 constituencies where New Komeito candidates are running and 11 where the NCP fielded a candidate. Instead, most of those LDP candidates were told by party headquarters to run for proportional representation seats.

But nine, including Morita, refused and stuck to their constituencies, running as independents. In addition, in 11 electoral districts where candidate adjustments were not worked out, more than one of the ruling parties is fielding a candidate.

Morita, a native of Ota Ward, was an Upper House member when he was asked by the LDP to run in a 1998 Lower House by-election for the Tokyo No. 4 constituency, which covers part of the ward.

"(People at) LDP headquarters told me I was selfish (for not listening to orders this time), but who is the selfish one?" he asked supporters on June 13 during his first campaign speech.

What makes the situation more complex is that the adjustment decisions made by the parties' top brass apparently do not reflect realities at the local chapter level.

In Tokyo No. 4, all LDP members of the Ota Ward chapter — from those in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly to Ota Ward Council representatives — support Morita, calling the LDP headquarters decision unjust.

"Party headquarters should recognize that it is ignoring the voice of local people," said Shoichi Iwashita, Morita's campaign chief. "Morita was elected by the voters of this constituency in the by-election. How can they do something that goes against public opinion?"

While Morita is campaigning with a demand for justice, Endo is stressing that "the most important thing about a politician is what he or she has achieved."

Endo, a former Foreign Ministry official, has served in the Diet for 10 years and has been a key member of the coalition's policy affairs team.

"Endo is supported by all the coalition parties and he's got experience and lots of achievements as a politician under his belt," said Takaaki Osawa, a member of his campaign staff. "Perhaps Morita is better-known, but we will keep telling voters that we need Endo in the Diet (as the area's representative)."

Top LDP officials, including Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka and policy chief Shizuka Kamei, have appeared in the constituency to stump for Endo.

Local LDP members are meanwhile supporting their "official candidate" Morita, gathering organized votes from local industries and organizations and calling for support.

While three others are also running in the constituency — from the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and the small Jiyu Rengo party — the focus of the race is on Morita and Endo.

Given the crossed swords within the LDP, some voters are sympathetic to their local LDP representative, who has not ruled out rejoining the party's roster should he be re-elected.

"Morita was born and raised in Ota, and he has close ties with the community and has been doing a great job for us, so we feel sorry for the way he's been treated," said Minoru Hashimoto, president of a local real estate firm near JR Kamata Station. "I do think he will gain sympathy votes."

Some voters also have awkward feelings toward New Komeito, which is backed by Japan's biggest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai.

Soka Gakkai is known as a reliable vote generator, and the attitude of New Komeito supporters varies little, regardless of any political situation, which is attractive to the LDP.

"It's either Endo or Morita, but I agree with those who feel uncomfortable about supporting a New Komeito candidate, because I don't really like religion. But then again, the LDP is backing him, so it's complicated," said a 67-year-old flower shop owner near JR Omori Station.

A 55-year-old woman working at a shop near JR Kamata Station, who has long been a staunch LDP supporter, said that while her mind was made up for her proportional representation ballot, she needed time to decide who to cast her vote for in the single-seat constituency.

She added that she is not sure about the idea of casting her vote for someone strongly backed by a religious group. "But then again, I hear Endo's ability as a politician is good, and maybe religion shouldn't be an issue," she said. "I really have to listen to what the candidates have to say for myself."

Toshiko Kida, 64, another LDP supporter who owns a sweets shop, said she, too, was unsure of who to vote for.

"Maybe in the end, it will depend on the weather," she said. "If it's sunny, I might go to vote, but then I don't want to go out in the rain on my only day off if I'm still not decided at that point."



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