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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007

Osaka governor, hit by scandal, lack of backers, won't seek a third term


Staff writer

OSAKA — Abandoned by her major backers, Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta announced Monday she will not run for a third term in next month's election. The decision ends her career as Japan's first female governor and throws open an election likely to have national repercussions.

News photo
Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta heads to a news conference on Monday. KYODO PHOTO

"Given the current situation, I decided it was impossible to run," Ohta said at a news conference in the morning, where she also apologized to voters and thanked them for eight years of support.

Over the weekend, Ohta received word from the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc, as well as the coalition's main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan, that they would not support her due to her entanglement in a string of financial scandals.

All three backed her in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

She was also abandoned by the Kansai Economic Federation following her admission that she had accepted nearly ¥9 million for 11 speaking engagements with a local business group over the past five years. She has also been criticized for registering a Tokyo condominium as an office for her support group even though her mother resides there.

"I realized the situation was severe after talking with a variety of people, including citizens and the prefectural assembly about recent incidents, and that my credibility had been damaged," Ohta said.

She further infuriated ruling coalition leaders when she appeared at the side of DPJ-backed candidate Kunio Hiramatsu following his Nov. 18 defeat of Osaka Mayor Junichi Seki, who was backed by the ruling bloc.

With Ohta's decision to step down, the race is up in the air. The LDP, New Komeito and the DPJ interviewed potential candidates Monday, but it was unclear if they will again jointly back a single candidate.

Some DPJ members, emboldened by the recent mayoral triumph, are eager to field their own candidate. A victory by the DPJ in the gubernatorial election so soon after Hiramatsu's victory would increase opposition pressure on Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House.

But other DPJ members, as well as the ruling coalition, insist Hiramatsu, a former TV announcer, won because he is well-known locally, not because he had DPJ support.

With campaigning for the Jan. 27 election starting in just over a month, finding strong candidates is proving difficult.

Several former politicians and entertainers who were sounded out by both sides last week declined to run.

However, lawyer Shoji Umeda, 57, backed by the Japanese Communist Party, has already thrown his hat in the ring.

Ohta became governor after her predecessor, the late "Knock" Yokoyama, a former comedian turned independent politician, resigned over a molestation scandal.

Her 2000 candidacy was opposed by local LDP officials, who felt she had been forced on them by senior LDP figures in Tokyo.

New Komeito and its main backer, the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, also wanted Ohta. Although the local LDP chapter rebelled and fielded its own candidate, New Komeito voters, who are particularly influential in Osaka, overwhelmingly chose Ohta.

She was further backed in both the 2000 and 2004 elections by the powerful Kansai Economic Federation, which was especially keen to have a governor with the political connections in Tokyo necessary to secure central government funding for a second runway at Kansai International Airport.

In 2000, the runway was in danger of being canceled due to stiff opposition among Tokyo bureaucrats and politicians.

However, Ohta, a former official in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, worked closely with the federation and with senior LDP figures to become an effective lobbyist for not only the runway, which opened in August, but also other economic projects desired by local business leaders, leading some political pundits to dub her the "governor of the Kansai Economic Federation."



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