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Monday, July 30, 2007

UPPER HOUSE SHOWDOWN

VOTERS HOPE FOR IMPROVEMENT

One thing's sure: Status quo doesn't cut it


By KAHO SHIMIZU, JUN HONGO and SHINICHI TERADA
Staff writers

An electorate dismayed by a seemingly endless series of scandals involving the ruling bloc went to the polls Sunday to decide the fate of the current leadership in the House of Councilors.

News photo
A man double-checks the list of candidates before casting his vote in the Upper House election Sunday at a polling station in Tokyo. AP PHOTO

The dominant Liberal Democratic Party has been beset by scandals of late over pension payment records gone missing, repeated gaffes by high-ranking officials and the loss of three scandal-hit Cabinet ministers — two to resignation and one to suicide.

Although Tokyo voters interviewed by The Japan Times were divided over whether the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc or the Democratic Party of Japan was better suited to control the Upper House, the mood appeared to favor the DPJ.

Soon after a polling station in Edogawa Ward opened at 7 a.m., 72-year-old housewife Sadako Hotta said: "My biggest concern in this election is pension reform, because I intend to live for much longer and my life depends on it."

Impressed by their vow to introduce a passbook system intended to prevent a replay of the Social Insurance Agency's mishandling of data, Hotta said she cast her vote for the DPJ and its candidate, Kan Suzuki. More than 50 million pension premium payment records were lost as a result of agency mismanagement.

Expressing a sentiment that must surely raise the hopes of the opposition, she said: "I've always voted for the ruling party, but this election was different. The time has come to change the boat's skipper."

As the largest opposition party, the DPJ received support from many voters who viewed it as the only viable challenger to the long-dominant LDP-New Komeito coalition.

A 70-year-old man at a polling station in Itabashi Ward said he voted for the DPJ because a vote for a small party would change nothing.

"The policies of the LDP and the DPJ are no different," he said. "But if the DPJ takes control, I think Japanese politics will change."

Of course, among Japan's largely conservative electorate, not everybody was sanguine about the DPJ's prospects.

A 58-year-old widow and part-time nursing-home employee in the suburb of Hino said she believes only the long-entrenched LDP can solve the pension fiasco.

"We have paid pensions for years, so I hope the LDP will work seriously to reform the pension system so that everyone will be able to receive pensions," she said. "I hope the LDP wins the election because they have held power for so long."

At the Itabashi polling station, a 62-year-old woman, who identified herself only by her family name, Nakayama, said she voted LDP for the sake of continuity.

"Allowing the DPJ to take the majority in the Upper House will only create political confusion," she said. "It will only make it difficult for the ruling coalition to work out and decide on policy measures."

Although angered and worried by the pension debacle, she said it is the Social Insurance Agency, not the LDP, that should take the blame.

"It's not the fault of the LDP because the root cause of the problem lies in the bureaucracy," she said. "The agency officials, especially the old ones who may have already retired, are to blame."

At a polling station in Edogawa Ward, a 48-year-old businessman who only gave his surname, Kitahara, said he cast his ballot for the LDP and its candidate, Tamayo Marukawa, despite the many setbacks suffered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet, including the suicide of agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka and the pension fiasco.

"(DPJ President) Ichiro Ozawa has harshly criticized Abe. . . . The current Cabinet hasn't been impressive, but I think Abe is doing his best," he said.

Other issues on the minds of voters were a possible hike in the consumption tax and constitutional revision. The LDP has lobbied hard in favor of changing the Constitution, particularly the war-renouncing Article 9.

A 63-year-old retiree in Hino named Hirakawa said he voted for the Japanese Communist Party because he wants Article 9 left untouched.

"I don't want my grandson to go to war in the future," he said. "Look at the Iraq war. We have already seen from the U.S. experience what happens to people who go to war. Japan should protect the current Constitution."

He also expressed concern over reports in recent months that the ruling coalition plans to begin discussions this autumn on increasing the consumption tax from the current 5 percent.

"If the consumption tax goes up, I won't be able to live on my pensions alone," he said.

Yosuke Sagano, a 55-year-old businessman approached at JR Tokyo Station, said he voted for the JCP. Sagano blamed both the LDP and DPJ for focusing too much on criticizing each other while ignoring the important issues in need of debate.

"The only party I can trust to have solid principles is the JCP," he said. "The others are merely playing musical chairs to gain the majority of the seats in the Upper House."



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