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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Okinawa victory gives pre-July boost to ruling coalition


Staff writer

The ruling coalition's victory in one of the two House of Councilors by-elections Sunday enhanced its majority in the chamber and gave it a breather going into the national election in July.

The two by-elections, in Okinawa and Fukushima prefectures, were widely seen as a prelude to the July Upper House election, which could decide the fate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

On Sunday, former Naha city assembly member Aiko Shimajiri, 42, an independent backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner New Komeito, fended off Yoshimasa Karimata, 57, who was backed by the Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties.

Meanwhile, Teruhiko Mashiko, 59, protected Fukushima for the DPJ.

Ruling coalition politicians said the victory in Okinawa effectively served as a referendum on the government's controversial plan to relocate the U.S. Marine's Futenma base from Ginowan to the Henoko area of Nago, both in Okinawa.

"The result was 1-1. But it virtually means victory for the ruling coalition, because it grabbed a seat in Okinawa," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

The ruling party needed the victory in Okinawa both to gain momentum for July and to boost military ties with the United States.

"If we win in Okinawa, it will be worth five seats (in the Upper House) to us," a close aide to Abe said before the by-elections.

Japan and the U.S. finalized a comprehensive base realignment agreement last May that calls for a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to be built in Henoko by 2014. Once the replacement base is built, about 8,000 marines and their families will be relocated to Guam.

Reflecting the importance of the election, Abe took the unusual step of flying to Okinawa twice to campaign. The Futenma issue has been a thorn in U.S.-Japanese relations for at least a decade.

"It means a lot to us to win a seat in Okinawa," LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa said late Sunday. "I hope we will gather momentum to win in the July election."

The opposition was stunned by the loss.

"It is extremely regrettable that we lost the Okinawa seat," said Seiji Mataichi, secretary general of the Social Democratic Party. "I think there were some problems in getting a clear message across to voters."

The by-elections were closely watched because of their implications for the Upper House election, which could decide the fate of Abe's government. At the least, a defeat would weaken his grip on policymaking. A major loss could force him out of office.

Abe dodged a question from reporters Monday about whether he would resign if the coalition fails to get 64 seats. "I will aim to win all seats at the upcoming election," he said.

Maintaining its Upper House majority will be tougher than it looks, compared with the LDP's other recent victories.

With Okinawa out of the way, the coalition now needs 64 seats to keep control of the chamber.

Out of the 64 seats, the LDP is in the position of needing at least 51 to maintain an overall majority, assuming New Komeito retains its 13 seats -- which are also up for grabs.

In the last Upper House election in 2004, the LDP won only 49 seats. It grabbed 65 in 2001, but that was an exceptional case because of the overwhelming popularity of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who attracted swing voters by campaigning on the theme "Reform without sacred cows."

While the seat in Okinawa was a symbolic gain for Abe, the ruling party is still not attracting independent or floating voters, who were critical to buoying Koizumi's ratings throughout his tenure, Meiji Gakuin's Kawakami said.

If Abe has trouble pushing important bills through the Diet or gets hit by another political scandal that causes an uproar, the LDP could see itself heading to a major defeat in July, he said.



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