Campaigning begins for Upper House race

Pensions, Iraq to dominate campaign

by and

Official campaigning for the July 11 House of Councilors election kicked off Thursday, with pension reforms and the deployment of Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq poised to be key battlegrounds between ruling bloc and opposition candidates.

The 320 people who filed their candidacies with central and local election administration commissions, down by 176 from the 2001 Upper House poll, will be vying for 121 seats.

Half the Upper House seats are up for grabs in the triennial election. In accordance with legal amendments enacted in 2000, the total number of seats in the Upper House — including those not up for grabs — will be reduced by five to 242 as a result of this year’s election.

Of the 320 candidates, 192 are running in electoral districts and 128 on the parties’ proportional representation lists. The overall number of candidates is the lowest since 1983, when the proportional representation system debuted.

Only 66 women are running, less than half the 137 the number in the last Upper House race.

The Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, hopes to win 56 or more seats to regain a single-party majority in the chamber for the first time in 15 years. The LDP holds 51 of the Upper House seats that are up for grabs this time.

The LDP has a majority in the more powerful House of Representatives. Holding a majority in both Diet chambers will solidify the footing of Koizumi, whose term as LDP president runs through 2006. He was re-elected party chief in September.

The Democratic Party of Japan hopes to upset the LDP-led ruling coalition by building on the momentum it generated in November’s House of Representatives race.

The LDP and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, are trying to woo voters by stressing the progress made via Koizumi’s reform initiatives in the three years since he took office in 2001.

The ruling coalition is also calling on voters to back the pension reform bills it recently forcibly passed that will raise premiums and reduce benefits, as well as the government’s decision to allow the SDF to join a U.S.-led multinational force that will be formed in Iraq after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty.

The opposition camp is accusing the Koizumi administration of three years of misrule.

In particular, the ruling bloc has been slammed for backpedaling on reforms in areas such as privatization of the ailing expressway corporations, for forcing the pension bills through the Diet and for deciding to let the SDF participate in the multinational force without a Diet debate.

“I’d like everyone to judge the achievements of the Koizumi Cabinet,” the prime minister told a crowd in front of JR Shibuya Station on Thursday morning. “No reform, no growth. Under these slogans, we have proceeded with various reforms.”

Koizumi added that the economy has shown signs of improvement, evidenced by reductions in the number of bankruptcies and the jobless rate over the past year.

Koizumi also called for support of the contentious pension reforms in light of Japan’s rapidly aging society, as well as for the administration’s plan to cooperate with the U.S. and other members of the international community in addressing issues pertaining to Iraq and North Korea.

DPJ chief Katsuya Okada slammed the ruling coalition and urged voters to cast their ballots for his party.

“Here comes a chance to say ‘No’ to that irresponsible prime minister, Mr. Koizumi,” Okada told a crowd outside JR Shinjuku Station’s east exit.

Lashing out at the coalition over the pension reforms and the SDF deployment in Iraq, Okada said the government began disclosing key information on future cuts in pension benefits only after its reform bills were railroaded through the Diet by the ruling bloc.

“The same can be said of the Iraq issue,” he added, pointing out that Koizumi promised U.S. President George W. Bush that the SDF would join the multinational force before he explained the matter to the Diet or to the electorate.