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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007

Osaka governor candidates slow to emerge


Staff writer

OSAKA — Position Wanted: Popular and well-known public figure with an interest in local politics. Must have the ability to skillfully negotiate with central government bureaucrats and have good relations with the local business community.

The preferred candidate will love "takoyaki" octopus dumplings, "manzai" standup comedy and the Hanshin Tigers. Yomiuri Giants fans need not apply.

One week after Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta announced she would not seek a third term, the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, are searching for willing candidates to run in the Jan. 27 election to replace her.

The nation's first female governor, who won a second term in 2004 with the joint support of the ruling bloc and the DPJ, opted out after the three parties refused to back her due to her involvement in several financial scandals.

TV commentators were joking that with only a month to go until the campaign kicks off, the parties should consider taking out help-wanted ads in the local press.

Some news reports found Osakans saying they wished former Hanshin Tigers manager Senichi Hoshino, who led the team to the Japan Series in 2003, would run. Hoshino remains popular in Osaka even though the Tigers lost that series to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. However, he is said to harbor no political ambitions.

While admitting it is extremely unlikely Hoshino would run, Osaka political observers say the parties need to find candidates with that kind of popularity and name recognition among not only Osaka voters but also Tokyo politicians and bureaucrats.

In addition, an effective governor will need the support of the local business community, particularly the powerful Kansai Economic Federation, and enough connections in Tokyo to secure central-government funding for public works projects.

Former federation Chairman Yoshihisa Akiyama, widely credited with rallying local business support for Ohta, once described theideal Osaka governor as being just as powerful in Tokyo as in Osaka.

The ruling coalition has been in talks with well-known comedian and television celebrity Kiyoshi Nishikawa, who served in the Upper House from 1986 to 2004. Nishikawa's name was first floated by local LDP members prior to Ohta's Dec. 3 announcement.

He declined at the time, saying he had "graduated" from politics and had no interest in returning. His family was also opposed. However, after other potential candidates refused, Nishikawa's name resurfaced over the weekend.

Norihisa Suzuki, a member of the LDP's Osaka chapter, said Monday morning that negotiations with a number of potential candidates were still taking place.

Energized by last month's Osaka mayoral election, in which DPJ-backed candidate Kunio Hiramatsu defeated incumbent Junichi Seki, who was backed by the ruling bloc, the DPJ decided to field its own candidate in the gubernatorial election instead of supporting someone also backed by the ruling block, like Ohta in the past.

But like the ruling coalition, the DPJ is having problems finding someone. There has long been speculation in the tabloid press that popular TV celebrity and manzai comedian Shinsuke Shimada might be persuaded to run, although most observers doubt he would.

Masashi Yatsumoto, deputy secretary general of the DPJ's Osaka chapter, on Monday said only that the party had not chosen a candidate.

For now, Shoji Umeda, 57, a lawyer backed by the Japan Communist Party, is the only declared candidate. Last week, in several speeches, he criticized the ruling bloc and the DPJ for failing to take voter concerns seriously, warning they are only searching for candidates with star appeal. Umeda, who lost the 2004 election to Ohta by 1 million votes, is considered a long-shot to win, although a different JCP-backed candidate received nearly 1 million votes in the 2000 election, finishing only 300,000 votes behind Ohta.



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