All eyes turn to race for governor’s office in Chiba

Prefectural election seen as bellwether for national mood in wake of Ozawa scandal

by Mariko Yasumoto

CHIBA (Kyodo) The upcoming Chiba gubernatorial election will be drawing an unusual amount of attention as an indicator of whether the public still wants the Democratic Party of Japan to unseat the Liberal Democratic Party in the next national election in spite of the fundraising scandal that has hit DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa.

Five people are running in the March 29 election, including Kensaku Morita and Masumi Shiraishi, who are both supported by local assembly members in the LDP, and Taira Yoshida, who obtained an official DPJ endorsement.

It will be the first voter verdict on the DPJ since Ozawa’s chief secretary, Takanori Okubo, was arrested March 3 on suspicion of accepting illegal donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co.

Before the scandal broke, the DPJ was riding high and seemed a good bet to wrest power from the LDP, which has ruled Japan almost without a break since 1955.

“If we win the Chiba election, it will mean the public wants regime change badly, even if the DPJ has been hit by a scandal,” said Masashi Saito, Yoshida’s campaign manager.

Despite the damage to the party’s image, both Saito and the DPJ have tried to play up the link between Yoshida and the party.

“We will invite more senior DPJ lawmakers to make stump speeches for Mr. Yoshida and carry our party’s colors further to the front,” said Toshinori Kono, head of the DPJ chapter in Chiba. “It is also a request from Mr. Yoshida’s camp.”

Such DPJ heavyweights as Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama and acting President Naoto Kan have already given campaign speeches around the prefecture for Yoshida. Hatoyama repeatedly offered apologies over the scandal, while Kan made no reference to it.

“I believe that President Ozawa will prove innocent, and so do all the other members of the chapter’s leadership,” Kono said, adding that the chapter is negotiating with the party’s national headquarters on inviting Ozawa himself.

Meanwhile, the supporters of both Shiraishi, 50, and Morita, 59, have been rejuvenated.

When the DPJ moved to endorse Yoshida “we were afraid that he would score a sweeping victory,” said Toshio Matsudo, Shiraishi’s campaign manager and an LDP member of the Chiba Municipal Assembly. “But he is no longer (the prime) threat. He has become just another rival.”

The DPJ initially endorsed Shiraishi, a professor at Kansai University, but later rescinded it on the grounds that she reneged on an agreement with the party and failed to fully incorporate its policies into her campaign platform.

But Yoshisada Sunano, head of her office, claims it is an unfounded accusation.

Last year, the DPJ agreed to join hands with the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, to back Shiraishi but suddenly altered its stance early this year, according to Sunano.

While basically blaming the withdrawal on her side, Kono of the DPJ prefectural chapter admitted the party wanted to file its own candidate to highlight its differences with the LDP ahead of the national election, which must be held by September.

Now that the DPJ has been jolted by the money scandal, however, the withdrawal of the endorsement has done no real harm to Shiraishi, Sunano said.

“The DPJ doesn’t have a strong base (in Chiba). with fewer organized votes than the LDP,” he said. “Without strong popularity (among independent voters), the DPJ may face an uphill battle.”

At this point, the front-runner is believed to be Morita, an actor and former Diet member. In the previous gubernatorial election in 2005, he racked up 950,000 votes, only 6,000 fewer than the winner, Akiko Domoto.

“His public recognition is enormous and way higher than Mr. Yoshida’s,” Saito said.

Yoshida, 49, was formerly president of Isumi Railway and is the youngest candidate among the five.

Morita, who was fully supported by the LDP in the previous election, has emphasized in his campaign that he has no affiliation with any party this time and that a battle between parties should not be brought into regional politics.

Asked whether he is trying to hide his connection with the LDP because of the party’s slumping approval rates, Morita’s campaign strategist, Meiji Gakuin University professor Kazuhisa Kawakami, said his candidate simply does not want to be swayed by the party’s lack of popularity.

His association with the LDP can’t be completely covered up, however, as he has won support from most LDP members of the prefectural assembly.

This could hurt him.

As Masaharu Hagiwara, 51, a self-employed businessman in the city of Ichikawa, put it recently, “I do not want the LDP to stay in power and I probably won’t vote for either candidate backed by the party.”

Hagiwara also said that the arrest of Ozawa’s secretary will not affect how he votes.

“That kind of politics and money scandal has often happened among LDP lawmakers and the party is rather more heavily tainted by corruption,” he said.