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Thursday, March 22, 2007
Local elections to test depth of voter despondence
By MASAMI ITO
The first major test of power for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet is quickly approaching -- April's nationwide unified local-level elections.
Held every four years, the polls will produce a new mix of governors, prefectural assembly members, mayors and other heads of towns, villages and wards.
The official campaign period for the gubernatorial elections, including Tokyo's, kicks off Thursday.
Along with the mayors for four ordinance-designated cities, 13 prefectures will choose governors on April 8. On April 22, the heads of many other towns, villages and wards will be elected.
"The unified local elections are the key ground battles" for the ruling and opposition parties, said strategist Hiroshi Miura, who runs Ask Co., a political PR consultancy in Tokyo. "And they are generally said to be the preliminary stage for the (July) Upper House election."
Will candidates backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party see victory despite the Cabinet's sagging support rate?
Or will the Democratic Party of Japan finally stand up and prove its strength? Critics have stressed that the April elections will be a struggle for both parties.
"Voters are becoming despondent because neither the LDP nor the DPJ are responding to their expectations," said Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of the Center for Political Public Relations Inc. "Both the LDP and DPJ are boosting distrust in politics . . . and that is why voters are looking for alternatives (at the local level)."
Ever since its inauguration in September, Abe's Cabinet has been hit by scandals, gaffes and other problems. A support rate that started at 65 percent at the onset has plunged to 39.9 percent, according to a Kyodo News survey earlier this month.
After two key figures in Abe's government resigned amid scandal, health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa caused an uproar in January by referring to women as "child-bearing machines." Political analysts agree that the gaffe affected the Aichi gubernatorial election in early February.
Since candidate Masaaki Kanda was backed by the ruling bloc -- the LDP and New Komeito -- he should have won handily. Instead, he ended up winning by a narrow margin after his 1.42 million votes edged out DPJ-backed rival Yoshiro Ishida's 1.36 million.
"Nobody expected such a close call," Miura said. "The voters were (angry) about Yanagisawa's statement and the fact that nothing was done about it, and turned their votes against (Kanda). . . . It will continue to cast a shadow on the upcoming local elections."
Another cloud over Abe's Cabinet and the LDP is the enormous "office expenses" declared by education minister Bunmei Ibuki, agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka and LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa. All three have recorded 30 million yen to 40 million yen in expenses in their political funding reports for 2005 despite using rent-free government offices that do not charge utility fees.
The DPJ's Hiroshi Nakai has also been caught up in the brewing scandal.
Matsuoka is also under fire for recording 5.07 million yen in utility fees in 2005 incurred at his rent- and utility-free office next to the Diet.
Meanwhile, the DPJ is suffering from a strategic failure of its own making -- it is missing candidates in many of the upcoming local elections.
For the 13 gubernatorial elections, it had to give up in Nara, Tokushima, Shimane, Tottori, Oita and Saga prefectures because it couldn't find strong, winnable candidates willing to run on the DPJ ticket. And despite the party's policy of not supporting the same candidate as the LDP, the DPJ is jointly backing candidates in Fukui and Mie prefectures.
The DPJ did manage to produce candidates in Hokkaido, Iwate, Fukuoka and Kanagawa prefectures to run against LDP-New Komeito-backed contenders. But they are all running as independents, not as official DPJ candidates, even though they were either former DPJ lawmakers or members of the party.
In Tokyo, where one of the most intense battles is expected, many names from celebrities to the DPJ's own deputy president, Naoto Kan, were once floated as possibilities. In the end, however, the party failed to find a candidate and decided to back independent Shiro Asano, who welcomed the DPJ's support on condition that it didn't field its own candidate.
The LDP declared its support for the popular incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, but like Asano, Ishihara declined to accept the party's official backing.
With candidates in the local elections already well aware that voters are snubbing the two major parties, other would-be candidates are sensing an opportunity.
That could be what Iwate Prefectural Assemblyman and professional wrestler "The Great Sasuke" had in mind when he announced Sunday that he plans to run in the Iwate gubernatorial election as an independent.
The Great Sasuke was first elected as an independent in 2003 with support from current DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa and his party, but this time he plans to vie against both DPJ-backed Takuya Tasso and LDP-supported Junichi Yanagimura.
His strong popularity and wide TV exposure echoes the assets of Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, better known as former TV celebrity Sonomanma Higashi.
Higashikokubaru, an independent, won the Miyazaki governorship by beating candidates backed by the LDP and DPJ.
"Locals don't care about what is happening in the central government -- the media reports on the battle between the ruling and opposition parties," political strategist Miura said.
"In one phrase, it is all about (the candidate's) love for the region," Miura said. "The current of the elections has gone beyond political parties and ideology to how much love (the candidate) feels for the local area."
Still, the political parties are closely attuned to their fate in the local-level polls, especially the Tokyo battle.
Some observers even reckon the race between Ishihara and Asano will be a proxy war between the ruling and opposition camps that could affect the two parties' fates in the summer Upper House poll, however tenuous the connections between the parties and two independents with distinct, but popular individual personalities.
"Tokyo is the capital, the symbol of Japan, and whether the LDP's Ishihara or the DPJ's Asano wins will affect both parties," Miura figured, noting that an Ishihara loss could suggest a possible weak image of the LDP in the capital, and if party-backed candidates fail in April, this could cloud the prospects of the Abe camp in the runup to the July election and yield restless cries from within the LDP.
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