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Monday, Nov. 14, 2005

Osaka mayor race begins with promises of reform

Staff writer

OSAKA -- The Osaka mayoral campaign kicked off Sunday with all four candidates promising financial reform and a cleansing of a city bureaucracy racked by a year of scandals.

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Candidates in the Osaka mayoral race (from left) Megumu Tsuji, Junichi Seki and Kiyoshi Himeno head out on the stump on the first day of official campaigning for the Nov. 27 election.

Of the candidates running in the Nov. 27 election, only three are viewed as serious contenders. They are former Mayor Junichi Seki, Megumu Tsuji, a former Democratic Party of Japan member from House of Representatives, and Kiyoshi Himeno, a former Japanese Communist Party Osaka city council member.

The fourth candidate is Koji Matsushita, a 33-year-old former company employee.

The election was called last month after Seki, 70, announced his resignation in the face of opposition within City Hall to his reform proposals. With the support of both the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, Seki is considered the front runner by a wide margin over both the 57-year-old Tsuji, who is officially running as an independent but is expected to pick up some support from his former party, and Himeno, 70, who has the backing of the JCP.

At issue is whether voters will endorse Seki's proposed reforms for a city that has nearly 5.5 trillion yen in cumulative debts, largely from ill-conceived public works projects that were planned and built during the 1990s.

His proposals include slashing thousands of jobs in the bureaucracy and selling off unprofitable public works projects, many of which are staffed by former bureaucrats. While supported by the Osaka business community, Seki's proposals have drawn the ire of many in the bureaucracy and the city council.

Scandals earlier this year involving public money being paid out for city employees' suits and falsified overtime records are also on the minds of voters.

"Osaka is now known around Japan as a bureaucrat's paradise, where they don't even need to use their own money to buy clothes, and where nobody checks up to see how much work they're really doing," said Takeshi Mitsuda, a 53-year-old banker who said he will likely vote for Seki.

But the citizen's watchdog group Mihariban, which initially exposed the illegal payments for suits and falsified overtime records, said that as Seki was vice mayor during much of the 1990s, he bears much of the responsibility.

Mihariban is backing Tsuji, who it believes would be more aggressive than Seki in pursuing fiscal malfeasance among senior bureaucrats and politicians.

But with only a third of eligible voters turning out in the 2003 mayoral election, and with local media projections that Seki will win easily, some in Osaka worry that even fewer people will show up at the polls this time around.

"If very few people show up, it could be extremely difficult for whoever wins to claim a popular mandate for reform," said Yuji Yoshitomi, an Osaka-based freelance writer and author of "The Bankruptcy of Osaka."

"That will likely lead to more political gridlock between the mayor's office and city council and push Osaka one step further toward bankruptcy," he said.

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The Japan Times

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