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AN INCUMBENT ON THE RUN

LDP facing crisis in conservative Ehime

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

Meeting earlier this month with mostly silver-haired voters in the rural town of Kumakogen, veteran lawmaker Katsutsugu Sekiya of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was fighting for his political life.

Here in Ehime Prefecture, a provincial Shikoku prefecture once deemed a bastion of LDP conservatism, the 69-year-old Sekiya is struggling to retain his House of Councilors seat against Toshiro Tomochika, a 32-year-old former J. League soccer player backed by the Democratic Party of Japan.

The former construction minister sees the July 29 election as the toughest battle he has ever faced in a political career spanning more than three decades.

The LDP is throwing the full weight of its support behind Sekiya in a bid to maintain its grip on conservative voters in rural areas, saying he can bring road and other infrastructure projects to the prefecture and reinvigorate the sluggish local economy.

But it’s increasingly uncertain whether traditional pork-barrel politics will be enough for the governing party in the face of mounting calls from voters for change.

“I see no favorable wind blowing for the LDP now in any aspect,” Sekiya’s secretary, Tsuyoshi Fujita, said in late June in Matsuyama, referring to public anger over the government’s mismanagement of a massive amount of pension account data.

In a rural region like Ehime, experts say, the record-keeping fiasco has dealt a “critical” blow to voter confidence in the existing political establishment controlled by the LDP.

Rural voters were already disillusioned with the LDP over the structural reforms pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Junichiro Koizumi, which they perceive as exasperating economic disparities with urban areas.

The wife of a 49-year-old fisherman in the city of Ozu is one such person.

“It’s because of all kinds of things — the pension issue, ministers’ gaffes and the fact that nothing has improved all these years. We’ve worked and worked, and still life is tough. I can’t trust the LDP anymore,” she said.

Her family’s net income is nearly half of what it was some 10 years ago and none of her three sons is following in their father’s footsteps because “it’s too tough,” she said as she sold fish caught by her husband in a market in Matsuyama, which she visits twice a week to earn extra income.

The local fishing cooperative, a traditional LDP backer, will probably ask her to vote for Sekiya, she said, but she has already decided to cast her ballot for former soccer player Tomochika because she wants “to bet on any possibility of changing the status quo.”

Although he is the son of a Matsuyama assembly member, Tomochika has no political experience. But he’s popular, especially with the young, for leading the local soccer team to the second J. League division.

Approached by DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa to run, Tomochika officially announced his candidacy in February as an independent with the backing of the DPJ, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

A 57-year-old “mikan” tangerine grower in the city of Yawatahama said he, too, is hoping for change and plans to support Tomochika. He said he actually expects little from Tomochika in the near term but is hoping a vote for him will serve as an “investment” to strengthen the agriculture sector in the prefecture, where mikan are a key produce item.

“We need a politician who can map out dramatic ideas so that Japanese agriculture can be competitive globally. That can’t be done with a politician with ties to agricultural cooperatives, which have traditionally been vote-gathering machines for the LDP,” said the farmer, who asked not to be named.

“Mr. Tomochika may not have such drastic and new perspectives now, but 10 years on, he will,” the farmer said, criticizing the LDP’s agricultural policy as focusing too much on providing subsidies often used wastefully and adding that many farmers have become dependent on them.

Tomochika is critical of the LDP-dominated postwar political scene and says a strong opposition force is needed.

“The longtime one-party regime is more or less causing systemic fatigue, leading to the current battered condition in Ehime Prefecture. Ehime needs to create a system where two large parties compete, or rural villages will be discarded and no one will be able to live here,” he said.

Sensing the prevailing winds, Sekiya has embarked on old-style campaign tactics: giving speeches in the streets and shaking hands with every voter he meets. Acquaintances say they “have not seen him do that in years.”

Sekiya was formidable in the past two elections, easily trouncing his closest challengers by a margin of 2 to 1.

“A second-generation lawmaker . . . he’s a politician who has worked hard to do jobs that serve interest groups, but not the kind who can gain popularity from the masses,” a local assembly member said.

At the gathering in Kumakogen, he sounded somewhat timid, telling the 300 people there he has lost 6 kg as he races around for support from the morning on.

But in an interview afterward, Sekiya appeared confident, saying he has been getting a favorable response on the campaign trail.

But he did admit the LDP’s vote-gathering power has been emasculated by municipal mergers, which have reduced the number of local assembly members — the core of the machine.

“Weakening of the organization has been inevitable,” Sekiya said of the prefecture that counted only 20 towns and cities by August 2005, down from the previous 70.

Kazuhisa Inoue, an official in the local New Komeito chapter, said its coalition partner is expecting an uphill battle and is asking for stronger support for Sekiya than ever before.

New Komeito, backed by the major lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, is known for mobilizing a large number of voters in every election.

Sekiya has become “a symbolic figure of the existing political establishment” relying on organized votes, said Tetsuya Kitahara, a professor at Osaka City University.

“I don’t think people are expecting a lot from Mr. Tomochika, but in contrast to Mr. Sekiya, being young and different is making it easier for Tomochika to attract support amid the prevailing public distrust in the prefecture.”

Kitahara added that this distrust may not necessarily give Tomochika the upper hand.

“Whether it can turn into a force that is strong enough to show up in the form of votes is another story. Such distrust can also end up in low voter turnout,” which typically benefits the established party.