Outcome of by-elections far from given

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Campaigning for two of seven upcoming Diet by-elections began Thursday, setting the stage for the biggest national-level electoral contests under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi since Upper House elections in July 2001.

Candidates running for the Chiba and Tottori constituencies of the Upper House hit the streets Thursday. Campaigning in the remaining five constituencies — the Yamagata No. 4, Kanagawa No. 8, Niigata No. 5, Osaka No. 10 and Fukuoka No. 6 districts of the Lower House — begins Oct. 15.

Voting takes place Oct. 27.

The by-elections come as Koizumi finds himself rapidly regaining popular support and the Democratic Party of Japan, the nation’s largest opposition party, continues to reel from a recent leadership spat.

“We will do our utmost to win all of the elections because that is what elections are all about,” Koizumi told reporters at his official residence. “After devoting all our efforts, we will only wait for the judgment of voters.”

But it remains unclear whether Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party can strengthen its hand by riding the coattails of the prime minister’s renewed popularity.

The seats in four of the seven districts were vacated by lawmakers resigning over money-related scandals, three of whom were LDP members. Many initially believed the LDP would face an uphill battle, with some speculating that it may not win most of the contested seats.

The sentiment changed when Koizumi’s approval ratings in media polls climbed sharply from nearly 40 percent before the summer to around 65 percent after his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Sept. 17.

But the LDP may not be able to maximize the effects of Koizumi’s improved popularity.

The ruling coalition was thrown into confusion by the adjustment of candidates in local party chapters — a situation that resulted in more than one LDP-linked candidate running in some constituencies and could split conservative votes in four districts.

In most cases, one candidate is officially supported by LDP headquarters in Tokyo, while the other is backed by some of the local LDP members.

“The LDP has become weak as a political party,” said Jun Iio, professor of politics at the National Graduate Institute for Political Studies in Tokyo, noting that it failed to unify party ranks even in Tottori Prefecture, where its political basis is strong.

In fact, the party was so desperate, Iio pointed out, it even backed candidates in Tottori who had run against the LDP in previous elections.

The LDP decided to recommend Kotaro Tamura, a locally well-known newspaper publisher who had campaigned against LDP candidates in the previous three elections.

This turn of events apparently infuriated Shozo Fujii, former local assembly member of the LDP, who decided to enter the race and will likely draw support from most members of the Tottori’s LDP chapter.

In the Fukuoka No. 6 district race, former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka took the initiative in the candidate selection process and picked up Ryuzo Aramaki, son of former Kyoto Gov. Teiichi Aramaki. Nonaka is elected from Kyoto Prefecture.

But local party supporters were unhappy with the move and threw their support behind Yoshitaka Nobu, who once served as a secretary to LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, elected from Fukuoka.

In Osaka’s No. 10 district, where the Lower House seat was vacated by the resignation of Social Democratic Party member Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the LDP is fielding Kenta Matsunami. Meanwhile, Yasuto Yoshida, a former local assembly member of the LDP, has also announced his candidacy.

In Kanagawa’s No. 8 district of the Lower House, political commentator Kenji Eda, who once served as secretary to former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, surprised both the LDP and the DPJ by announcing his intention to run as an independent.

Eda’s announcement came after he snubbed the LDP’s request to run on the its ticket. The LDP then chose a new candidate through an unusual process of soliciting applicants from the public.

It is widely believed that Eda based his decision to run as an independent on a recent trend in which the power of unaffiliated voters overwhelms organized votes — a sea change perfectly illustrated by Yasuo Tanaka’s landslide victory in the Sept. 1 Nagano gubernatorial election.

The LDP meanwhile managed to find a single candidate to square off against opposition contenders in three constituencies: the Niigata No. 5 and Yamagata No. 4 districts of the Lower House and the Chiba district of the Upper House.

But it remains to be seen whether the party’s vote-gathering machine will function in the Niigata and Yamagata districts, left vacant by the resignations of former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato.

As for Yamagata, the LDP headquarters decided to back Takayoshi Sagae after the local LDP chapter gave up fielding a candidate. Sagae ran as a DPJ candidate in the 2000 general election.

The Yamagata chapter was reluctant to field a candidate as Kato is widely expected to run again in the next general election. Kato resigned from the Diet in April in the wake of a tax-evasion scandal involving his top aide.

The selection of Sagae was officially decided Tuesday — only a week before campaigning for the Yamagata race officially begins.

The LDP has managed to field a candidate in the Niigata race, but it remains unknown how the absence of Tanaka, who commanded an unrivaled level of popularity in the constituency, will affect the LDP candidate’s performance.

Kato and Tanaka are banned from running in the by-elections.

Tanaka, who surrendered her Diet seat in August amid allegations that she had misappropriated her secretaries’ salaries, was dismissed by Koizumi as foreign minister in January and became embroiled in prolonged feud with senior LDP leaders.

She has not spoken up since her resignation and it is unclear whether she will run in the next general election.

Yamasaki, Koizumi’s ally and the party’s No. 2 man, will be pressured to take responsibility if the LDP fares poorly in the seven by-elections.

Koizumi retained Yamasaki as secretary general after his Cabinet reshuffle in September, but discontent continues to simmer within the party over Yamasaki over his alleged lack of leadership.

“I hope we can win a majority (of the seven elections),” Yamasaki told a TV program Sunday. He denied the possibility that the election results may lead to his resignation.

Meanwhile, the DPJ’s prospects seem equally dim.

The LDP’s initial slow preparations for the Diet races appeared to give the DPJ a head start, but recent confusion in the DPJ’s top leadership after Yukio Hatoyama’s re-election as party chief on Sept. 23 has clouded its prospects for the elections.

The party’s younger-generation lawmakers, who are unhappy with Hatoyama’s selection of key party executives, are expected to hold him to blame if the party fares poorly in the race.

DPJ member Shigefumi Matsuzawa, one of Hatoyama’s critics, said the party chief should be able to secure at least four seats in order to declare a victory.