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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008

CELEBRITY'S LANDSLIDE WIN IN OSAKA

Substance now needed to bring real change


Staff writer

OSAKA — Lawyer and TV celebrity Toru Hashimoto, 38, became Japan's youngest governor Sunday, winning the Osaka gubernatorial election by more than 800,000 votes in a surprise landslide victory.

News photo
Osaka Gov.-elect Toru Hashimoto faces reporters at the prefectural government building Monday. KYODO PHOTO

Hashimoto was swept into office by younger voters eager for change and attracted to his television fame, and by older voters suspicious of the opposition.

But skepticism remains strong about whether Hashimoto can actually bring the kind of change his supporters want. Critics warn that unless he moves quickly to turn his words into concrete action and show he can govern, he'll quickly disappoint his supporters.

The final tally showed Hashimoto with more than 1.83 million votes, capturing 54 percent of the ballots cast, to Democratic Party of Japan-backed Sadatoshi Kumagai's 999,082, or about 29.4 percent of the votes. Turnout was 48.95 percent, nearly nine points higher than the 2004 election.

Hashimoto's victory is likely to reduce opposition pressure on Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House. The fact that Hashimoto won with only the official backing of the Liberal Democratic Party's prefectural chapter, against full DPJ support for Kumagai, has been interpreted as a major victory for the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc and a major setback for DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa.

Pundits also point out that Hashimoto campaigned without any highly visible LDP politicians and won big despite going up against the DPJ. Other local political experts say, however, that Hashimoto's victory had little to do with the struggle between Fukuda's LDP and Ozawa's DPJ, and was due mainly to Hashimoto's celebrity status.

Going into the election, the key question was whether voter turnout would be higher than the postwar low 40.49 percent for the 2004 election, and few polls had predicted a large turnout, especially by younger people.

But an NHK exit poll Sunday night showed a large turnout by young voters, and Hashimoto won over about 60 percent of those in their 20s and 30s, as well as 60 percent of all female voters.

Hashimoto, according to NHK, won about 80 percent of LDP-registered voters, 90 percent of New Komeito voters, and, most significantly, 50 percent of unaffiliated voters. He also managed to take nearly 25 percent of DPJ-registered voters.

Some of the older voters who went for Hashimoto did so despite unease about his age and lack of a clear vision for the elderly. Their reasons were a combination of hope that his election heralds true change and fears that a Kumagai victory would alienate Osaka from the ruling coalition.

And some pundits and local media suggested a fair number of New Komeito voters, even if they were less than thrilled about Hashimoto, decided in the end he was better than Kumagai, the DPJ and Ozawa, who is disliked by many in the lay Buddhist organization Sokka Gakkai, New Komeito's main backer.

Kumagai ran primarily on a campaign of industrial reform, which pleased the business community. But most voters were more concerned about the prefecture's finances and emergency medical care, which became an issue just a few weeks ago when the media reported about people dying in ambulances after being turned away by dozens of area hospitals.

Education and reform of local schools were also an issue, as younger parents worried about a central government survey last year that showed Osaka's elementary and junior high schools ranked third to last in nationwide test scores.

With the election now over, though, tough questions are being asked in different quarters about Hashimoto's ability to govern. On this point, even some in the LDP are worried.

"Hashimoto must show he has specific ideas on how to revitalize the prefecture. He must convincingly explain those ideas to voters and the prefectural assembly to make them reality. Can he do it? I don't know," said one local LDP official, speaking anonymously.

Osaka Prefecture is about ¥5 trillion in debt, largely because local bonds were issued in the 1990s for construction of Kansai airport and other public-private projects that now bleed red ink, while during the same period Osaka-based corporations fled to Tokyo or overseas, resulting in a drastic drop in corporate tax income.

The Finance Ministry has warned the prefecture to implement drastic reforms or face losing much of its fiscal autonomy. Hashimoto has repeatedly said he would make cost-cutting a priority and offered tough words for bureaucrats.

"I'll cut what needs to be cut and keep those personnel and services that need to be kept," Hashimoto said repeatedly during his campaign and following his victory.

One group of skeptics Hashimoto must win over is the local business community, which was less than enthusiastic about his candidacy and wants him to come up with sound policies, not television sound bites.

"We hope Hashimoto will spell out his priorities for economic revitalization and demonstrate resolute leadership by quickly presenting a detailed vision for the prefecture's future and a way to achieve it," Kansai Economic Federation Chairman Hiroshi Shimozuma said in a release Sunday night. Hashimoto is expected to begin reaching out to the local business community at next week's annual Kansai Economic Seminar in Kyoto.



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