Urban support seen as key for Horie

Old guard Kamei, meanwhile, is counting on a solid rural vote

by Reiji Yoshida

ONOMICHI, Hiroshima Pref. — A small office in front of JR Onomichi Station attracts hundreds of visitors daily as the Sept. 11 House of Representatives election draws near.

It is the campaign office of IT entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, who rocked the business establishment earlier this year with his foiled takeover battle with the Fuji-Sankei media conglomerate. He is running for the Lower House to represent Hiroshima’s No. 6 district.

Many of the visitors are in their 20s and 30s. They drop by, look inside, watch a video of Horie on a TV screen and leave messages for him.

A member of his campaign staff said visitors topped 40,000 in the first four days after the office opened Aug. 25.

Horie, 32, is one of the high-profile figures tapped by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to run in Sunday’s election against enemies of his postal privatization bills. He is among the key candidates in a star-powered media blitz aimed at wooing unaffiliated voters.

Horie is running as an independent after the Liberal Democratic Party asked him to take on LDP rebel Shizuka Kamei. Horie emphasizes his LDP ties by hanging photos of himself taken with Koizumi and other top LDP executives.

“Earlier, I was not interested in politics at all. But now I am interested,” said a 30-year-old woman who emerged from Horie’s campaign office and gave her family name as Fujii.

“This time I will definitely go to the polls,” she said, adding, however, that she has not decided whether to vote for Horie.

Rival candidates wonder if these people really support “Horiemon” or are just visiting his office to catch a glimpse of the 32-year-old IT investor, who has become a household name thanks to the massive coverage of his battle with the Fuji-Sankei group.

Indeed, media forecasts over the weekend showed that former LDP policy chief Kamei, who was denied the party’s endorsement for the election after voting against the postal bills, was leading Horie, Koji Sato of the Democratic Party of Japan and independent Yoji Ito.

“(Politicians) opposing postal privatization do so just because they want to freely use the money kept in postal savings,” Horie told the more than 100 people who packed his office Sunday. He was referring to what is effectively the world’s largest bank — the postal savings system — which is used to run government-linked corporations.

“(Through the election), we can get rid of the resistance forces linked to vested interests once and for all!” Horie shouted to applause and cheers.

When Horie arrived to give a speech near a supermarket Monday, where more than half the audience was made up of women and children. Immediately after he finished, many of them mobbed the candidate and asked him to pose with them for cellular phone photos.

While his odds against Kamei remain unclear, the entry of Horie and other fresh faces recruited by Koizumi in the war against the antireformists may have boosted the LDP’s image among urban unaffiliated voters.

A telephone survey conducted by Kyodo News on about 154,000 people from Sept. 1 to 3 found that 26.5 percent of those without loyalty to any party would vote for the LDP, while a little less, 25.9 percent, said they would go with the DPJ.

In a Kyodo survey conducted just before the last general election, in 2003, 31.5 of such swing voters said they planned to vote for the DPJ — well above the 23.4 percent for the LDP.

“Now people have got the impression that the LDP has become a brand-new party, haven’t they?” Koizumi said last month after the LDP asked Horie about running.

The LDP — traditionally stronger in rural environs than in urban areas — has been suffering a gradual decline in support since the early 1990s.

Many of the party’s most powerful leaders were elected from rural areas, and the party thrived by promising heavy public works spending and farm subsidies to prop up rural economies.

Koizumi, elected from an urban district in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, has cut back on public works spending since taking office in 2001, and shifted the focus of campaigning more toward urban voters through media exposure and sound bites.

The election prospects of LDP candidates have long depended on their family roots and local connections. But many of the candidates Koizumi has picked, including Horie, lack those ties.

Kamei is probably the politician who best represents the opposite of Horie. He has often been described as a typical member of the LDP old guard who boasts solid ties with farmers and construction workers in rural districts.

The Hiroshima No. 6 district covers a wide span of eastern Hiroshima, encompassing both the vast mountainous areas to the north facing depopulation and the more populous, relatively developed coastal cities, including Onomichi and Mihara.

Kamei, born in the mountains, is running on the ticket of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), a party of ex-LDP postal rebels. He claims to have a powerful campaign machine in the area, where a strong sense of exclusivity still lingers.

The keywords of Kamei’s campaign are “rural villages,” “fishery industry” and “(protection of) the weak,” according to Susumu Michiue, who heads his campaign headquarters.

Michiue said Kamei enjoys solid support because he has convinced voters that he keeps his promises when it comes to securing financial support for the region.

“Kamei is trusted (by voters) because he has shown (concrete) results. He checks every item of the budgetary requests (from local municipalities) and has made sure all of them are carried out (by the state),” Michiue said.

During a gathering of about 70 supporters Monday in the farming town of Sera, Kamei began his speech with an emotional tale about his late mother.

Then he emphasized what he has done to help build roads in the area, boasting his influence over the central bureaucracy.

“I served as transport minister, construction minister and policy chief (of the LDP),” Kamei told the crowd at a community center. “That’s all thanks to you (voters).”

Kamei’s bragging, however, may be losing its luster because the local and central governments — both heavily in debt — have been forced to scale down public works spending in recent years.

In the 2003 election, the DPJ’s Sato nearly caught up with Kamei, who won by a narrow margin of 17,000 votes.

“Some construction companies supported us in the last election. They were fed up with having been forced” to back Kamei’s campaigns for years, said a senior member of Sato’s office.

Campaign staff for both Kamei and Sato agree that voters in Onomichi and Mihara, rather than those in Kamei’s rural home turf, will hold the key to Sunday’s election.

In 2003, Kamei won more votes than Sato in all areas except for the two cities.

And they are the only urban areas in the district, areas where Horie — the X-factor in the election — is believed to have strong appeal.