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Nagoya win limited lift for DPJ until Ozawa comes clean

by Kazuaki Nagata

Takashi Kawamura’s landslide win Sunday in the Nagoya mayoral poll was a much-needed boost for the Democratic Party of Japan, whose image and reputation were badly damaged by the arrest in March of President Ichiro Ozawa’s chief secretary over shady political donations.

Kawamura, 60, a former DPJ Lower House member, ran as an independent with DPJ support.

He garnered 514,514 votes, nearly double the number cast for the runnerup, Masahiko Hosokawa, 54, a former trade ministry bureaucrat backed by the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc.

Although he was considered the front-runner, Kawamura’s win was all the more welcome given that two DPJ-backed candidates recently lost the Akita and Chiba gubernatorial elections.

Those setbacks were at least partly attributed to Ozawa’s dubious ties with Nishimatsu Construction Co., the company at the center of alleged illegal donations.

DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said before the Nagoya election that a Kuwamura win was crucial to boost the ratings of both the party and Ozawa.

But it is questionable to what extent the DPJ’s fortunes have actually improved on the back of Kawamura’s win. Some party members and political observers said the DPJ will continue to struggle to regain momentum unless Ozawa offers a clear explanation of his role in the Nishimatsu scandal.

“(The victory) was because of Kawamura’s personal popularity and his character, as well as his policies that criticized civil servants and made a clear distinction between his friends and enemies,” said Satomi Tani, political science professor at Okayama University.

Tani said Kawamura’s “populist strategy” was in line with tactics opposition candidates have employed in many recent elections, in which they confront and reject the status quo.

Kawamura is a well-known figure in Nagoya, which was his power base as a Lower House lawmaker. In explaining his win, he said voters welcomed his pledge to reduce the local residence tax.

“I think (Kawamura’s win) had nothing to do with Ozawa,” Tani said, adding his victory will not be a significant boost to the DPJ.

Many DPJ members are aware the party may have trouble in the next general election, which must be held by fall, until Ozawa convinces voters of his innocence in the Nishimatsu affair. Most media polls show that 60 percent to 70 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the DPJ chief’s explanation of the scandal.

“When 60 percent to 70 percent of the people are not satisfied with his explanation, it is impossible to bring about a change in government,” said Katsuya Okada, a DPJ vice president, in a speech last week in Tokyo.

“Ozawa needs to explain more,” Okada concluded.

It has been about a month since Ozawa’s top aide, Takanori Okubo, was charged with violating the Political Funds Control Law, and DPJ executive members have urged Ozawa to provide a fuller explanation of his role.

Ozawa has said he has never met Nishimatsu executives and claimed Okubo followed the law in dealing with the group’s political funds report.

Although Hatoyama suggested Ozawa could have a town hall-style meeting to directly communicate with the people, the DPJ head does not seem receptive to the idea, nor has he offered a more detailed explanation.

Ozawa said the media rarely mentions that he thoroughly reports his political funds, so “in that sense, I understand there are people who want me to explain more. And as for the explanation, I am sure they will understand it as I meet with the people and communicate with them,” Ozawa said in an April 21 news conference.

Last week, Ozawa resumed visiting electoral districts around the nation but did not touch on the scandal.

Political observers have criticized him and the DPJ for not taking stronger action on this issue.

“A person without communication skills is not eligible to become prime minister,” Gerald Curtis, political science professor at Columbia University, said during a meeting of a DPJ-appointed panel that is discussing how Ozawa should respond to the public.