LDP wins in five of seven elections amid low turnout

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party won five of the seven Diet by-elections Sunday amid extremely low voter turnout that apparently reflected sluggish public interest.

The by-election results are expected to provide momentum for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform initiatives, while the top leadership of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which won only one of the contested seats, is likely to face severe criticism from within party ranks.

LDP-backed candidates won the races in the Fukuoka No. 6, Osaka No. 10 and Niigata No. 5 districts of the Lower House and in the Chiba and Tottori constituencies of the Upper House.

Meanwhile, 33-year-old Yale University graduate school student Jun Saito, running on the opposition Democratic Party of Japan ticket, won the race in the Yamagata No. 4 district — a long-established “kingdom” of former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, who resigned over money scandals.

Kenji Eda, who had served as secretary to former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, won the by-election in the Kanagawa No. 8 district. Eda, 46, ran as an independent after turning down the LDP’s request to run on the party’s ticket.

The by-elections, seen as a major electoral contest for Koizumi as the nation remains mired in an economic slump, were marked by sluggish voter turnout — up to 28 percentage points lower than in the general election held in June 2000.

Voter turnout was at historic lows in all of the seven districts. In the Chiba constituency, turnout was only 24.14 percent, meaning three out of four eligible voters failed to go to polling stations.

“We were able to win great achievements in the by-elections through the united efforts of the coalition parties,” LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki said as he declared a victory for Sunday’s elections.

Hirotaka Akamatsu, in charge of the DPJ’s campaigns, meanwhile said the low voter turnout helped ruling coalition candidates who are backed by organized votes, including New Komeito’s powerful voting machine Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization and the party’s main backer.

In Fukuoka’s No. 6 constituency, Ryuzo Aramaki, 30, backed by the LDP and coalition partners New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, defeated his rivals, including former DPJ Lower House member Issei Koga, who had been favored to win the race in earlier media forecasts.

Aramaki, son of a former governor of Kyoto Prefecture, fought an uphill battle in the campaign as he was marked as a candidate with few links to Fukuoka. Conservative votes were also split as some local LDP supporters fielded another candidate.

But Koga, who won a Lower House seat in the previous election as a proportional-representation candidate, also came under criticism when he gave up his seat to run in the by-election. Lawmakers tend to prefer being elected from electoral districts, rather than on a party’s proportional-representation ticket.

In the Osaka No. 10 district, LDP-backed Kenta Matsunami, 31, a former reporter with the Sankei Shimbun daily, defeated his rivals in a race that was triggered by the resignation of Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the Social Democratic Party over allegations that she misappropriated the state-paid salaries of her secretaries.

The Niigata No. 5 district, which was similarly left vacant by the resignation of former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, was won by Yukio Hoshino, 70, a former Lower House member backed by the LDP and its coalition partners. After quitting the chamber over suspected misappropriation of secretaries’ salaries, Tanaka, who once claimed dominant popularity in the constituency, was invisible in the race.

In the Chiba Prefecture constituency of the Upper House, Kazuyasu Shiina, 50, won the race on the LDP ticket. The Chiba constituency has been left vacant since the resignation of Upper House President Yutaka Inoue over a bribery scandal involving his secretary.

In Tottori Prefecture, Kotaro Tamura, an LDP-backed 39-year-old executive of a local newspaper, won a narrow victory in the race in which conservative votes were split between him and a contender backed by many LDP local assembly members.

Meanwhile, the LDP failed to keep the party’s seat in the largely conservative Yamagata No. 4 constituency.

Since Kato, who is banned from running in the by-election, is planning to run in the next general election to try for a comeback in the Lower House, the LDP’s local chapter was reluctant to field a candidate. Just one week before the campaign officially started, the party headquarters decided to field a former opposition candidate on the LDP ticket, largely as a face-saving measure. However, exit poll data show that nearly half of the voters who formerly supported Kato voted for the DPJ’s Saito instead.

In the Kanagawa district, the LDP was snubbed by Eda, who had run on the LDP ticket in the previous election, as Eda apparently opted to seek support among unaffiliated urban voters. He also appears to have won votes from many of the traditional LDP supporters in the constituency.