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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2004

LOWEST TURNOUT ON RECORD

Osaka gubernatorial election characterized by voter apathy


Staff writer

OSAKA -- In an election marked by extreme voter apathy, Fusae Ohta was re-elected Sunday to a second term as Osaka governor by a huge majority.

News photo
Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta addresses reporters in Osaka after winning re-election to another four-year term.

Voter turnout was 40.49 percent, the lowest ever recorded, disappointing many, including Ohta. In the 2000 gubernatorial election, 44.58 percent went to the polls.

Ohta garnered 1,558,626 votes, more than twice that of her closest challenger, Takenori Emoto, who received 670,717 votes, according to the local election administration board.

Shoji Umeda, a candidate backed by the Japanese Communist Party, won 505,167 votes. Former Sennan Municipal Assembly member Hirokaki Koyama secured 25,851, followed by former business manager Shigezo Nishimura with 13,885. All five ran as independents.

A tired and subdued Ohta was declared the victor at about 9 p.m. Sunday, just an hour after polls closed.

Ohta, who had the support of all major political parties as well as the powerful business organizations Kansai Economic Federation and Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said she felt the voter turnout was a vindication of her policies.

She has pledged to make the glimmer of economic recovery in Osaka grow into a full-fledged revival implement reforms that will improve the state of the prefecture's finances.

"The low voter turnout rate is regrettable," she told a news conference late Sunday. "One reason, perhaps, was that this was only an election for governor, not a general election for prefectural assembly members as well."

Her campaign began with some controversial flip-flopping over what sort of support she would accept.

Last fall, Ohta surprised many when she announced that she would not seek any official party backing for her re-election bid.

But after former Hanshin Tigers pitcher and Upper House Diet member Takenori Emoto announced he would challenge Ohta several weeks later, the incumbent changed her mind and secured the support of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Social Democratic Party.

Ohta was especially popular with New Komeito voters, gathering nearly 90 percent of their votes, according to various media polls. But she also secured the support of nearly half of the voters who went to the polls with no particular party affiliation.

Emoto, whose entry into the race generated initial excitement, quickly found himself the outsider, and was forced to rely on nongovernmental organizations and other smaller groups to run his campaign.

But his message, seen as little more than an attack of Ohta's policies, failed to resonate with voters. Many people also felt that he relied too heavily on his former career as a Hanshin Tigers pitcher.

"He ran the kind of campaign that former Gov. "Knock" Yokoyama ran, that of a famous person who was a populist at heart but outside the traditional establishment," an Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry official who worked on Ohta's campaign said.

Yokoyama, a comedian-turned-politician, stepped down amid an embarrassing sexual harassment scandal, paving the way for the election that brought Ohta to office. Many observers said the fiasco has made Osaka voters wary of such candidates.

"I don't think Emoto really understood how Osaka has changed over the past four years," the official said. "That (sort of campaign) doesn't work anymore."



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