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Friday, June 24, 2005

Ishihara seen as X-factor in metro race

Outspoken governor may get chance to swing election amid voter apathy


Staff writer

Four years ago, it was Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who appeared on the posters of Liberal Democratic Party candidates for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Thanks to his enormous popularity, Tokyo voters gave the LDP a key victory, boosting the party's presence by five seats to 53 in the 127-seat assembly.

But things may be different this time around.

When official campaigning for the July 3 metro assembly poll kicks off Friday, the face that will be plastered on many candidates' posters will belong to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

With an apparent lack of controversy and public interest in the upcoming poll, the various parties are trying to capture the hearts of urban voters. And some candidates are opting to ride on the popularity of Ishihara, a former Lower House member who left the LDP and won the governorship as an independent.

Swing voters were the key in the most recent elections, but only when they had reason to expect strong political change, as with Koizumi, according to Akio Igarashi, a professor of political science at Rikkyo University. That is unlikely to happen this year, he said.

"There is no boom in this election," Igarashi said. "I guess the possibility of swing voters casting ballots is low."

A low turnout will make it tough for the Democratic Party of Japan, which depends on swing votes, Igarashi said.

But it may also affect the LDP, whose support organizations have weakened in recent years, he said.

Well aware of the changes in the political climate, the LDP has set a rather realistic goal of 50 seats for this year's election.

Motoji Suganuma, deputy secretary general of the LDP's Tokyo election bureau, said the last race was held at a time when Koizumi had a public approval rating of about 80 percent.

"Given the situation is different from four years ago, we should secure at least 50 seats," he said. The LDP is fielding 57 candidates this time.

While support for Koizumi has fallen over the past four years, Suganuma said he still enjoys an approval rate of nearly 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the DPJ, which holds 19 seats in the assembly, is fielding 51 candidates, including 31 who are running for the first time.

Yoshio Tezuka, a Lower House member and secretary general of the DPJ's Tokyo chapter, predicted voters will negatively evaluate the LDP's achievements in national politics.

He expressed confidence the DPJ will fare well in the poll because Koizumi has not achieved the reforms he pledged.

"The focus of the election is whether a two-party system (the DPJ and LDP) is established in the capital," he said.

Tezuka also boasted that many of the DPJ's candidates are young, enthusiastic and have good career backgrounds.

But others say straight-speaking nationalist Ishihara may be big factor in the race, given the lack of debate in the assembly.

In the LDP's campaign pledge, the party expresses strong support for Ishihara.

"Ishihara has carried out what other governors could not do," Suganuma said, referring to his drastic policies, including the strict regulations he placed on diesel emissions in Tokyo in October 2003.

Ishihara, a rightwinger known for his strong nationalist views and brusque manner of speaking, has many fervent supporters.

He has criticized China for laying claim to the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and also for sending a Chinese vessel into Japan's exclusive economic zone, which it also disputes, around Okinotorishima Island in December.

In May, Ishihara visited the tiny islet 1,700 km south of the mainland to assert Japan's claim to the vast EEZ waters. The islet is under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

However, the image of the charismatic governor was tainted recently when Vice Gov. Takeo Hamauzu, his longtime aide, was forced to resign after being accused of perjury and of monopolizing the inner workings of the city.

In a March assembly session, a DPJ member asked Hamauzu about a vocational school run by the metro government. Hamauzu alleged that the school was being mismanaged.

An investigation conducted by an assembly research committee, however, found no problem with the school.

Hamauzu said he did not ask the DPJ member to question him about the school, but the committee concluded he arranged for the question to be asked and accused him of perjury over his allegation.

In addition, the media also revealed that Ishihara comes to City Hall only two or three times a week, and claimed his negligence allowed Hamauzu to monopolize the workings of the metro government.

"Ishihara's responsibility as a supervisor (of the vice governor) is grave. He should resign," Tezuka, the DPJ lawmaker, said, adding that parties that support the governor may lose votes.

The DPJ remains split on the matter. While Tezuka and some DPJ assembly members are critical of Ishihara, Norihiko Natori, the party's leader in the assembly, and other core members have supported the governor.

Natori's group announced its support at the gubernatorial poll in 2003, although the DPJ supported Keiko Higuchi, who ran against Ishihara.

Due to this split, it is not certain whether voters disappointed by Ishihara would cast ballots for DPJ candidates, observers said.

Meanwhile, Tatsujiro Hashimoto, an adviser of the metro headquarters of New Komeito, the second-largest force in the metro assembly and the LDP's coalition partner in the Diet, said the party is impartial to Ishihara.

New Komeito, which holds 21 seats, is fielding 23 for the race.

"We regard this poll as an opportunity that leads to the next national election, whose result will allow our party to keeps on playing its role in the coalition government," Hashimoto said.

The Japanese Communist Party, the fourth-largest force in the assembly with 15 members, and local party Tokyo Seikatsusha Network, with six members, are taking a clear stance against the Ishihara administration.

The JCP proposed that a motion to censure Ishihara be put to a vote in the assembly in early June, but it failed since other parties opposed it.

"Only the JCP grappled with the vice governor's problem squarely," said Susumu Tanabe, secretary general of the party's Tokyo committee.

"Ishihara lacks ideas from the viewpoint of human rights," said Mieko Shioda, campaign manager of Tokyo Seikatsusha Network. She said Ishihara does not promote the welfare of women, foreigners and the disabled.

Igarashi of Rikkyo University said that since local-level policies are not very controversial, many Tokyoites are likely to vote according to how they see the situation at Japan's political center.

But it is difficult to predict how Koizumi and Ishihara will affect voters, he said.

"Koizumi's approval rate is still more than 40 percent. The question is how the approval rate and the damage from Ishihara will actually be reflected in the poll," he said.



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