SAPPORO — The winds of change are blowing nationwide as the Lower House election nears.
The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party is waging a struggling campaign at the expense of the front-running Democratic Party of Japan.
A key showdown is expected in Hokkaido and its 12 constituencies, where three LDP heavyweights are running in single-seat districts, as is DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, in the Hokkaido No. 9 district.
In the No. 5 district, Nobutaka Machimura, 64, leader of the LDP’s largest faction, is locked in a tight race against 40-year-old Chiyomi Kobayashi of the DPJ.
Machimura is an eight-time winner who has held several key posts, including foreign minister and chief Cabinet secretary. But both the LDP and DPJ camps now admit he could lose to Kobayashi, who formerly served one Diet term, in his single-seat district, though he is also on the LDP’s proportional representation list.
“I doubt we are in a 50-50 situation” against Kobayashi, an executive in Machimura’s camp who asked not to be named said in an interview with The Japan Times. Even though “there is a world of difference” between Machimura’s proven track record and his DPJ rival’s, the LDP candidate is fighting a tough battle now and has not secured majority backing from voters, the official admitted.
“Most people are mentioning (they want change). That is why we have a severe situation,” he said.
A senior executive of the DPJ’s Hokkaido chapter said Kobayashi is fighting a very close battle and Machimura is on the edge between victory and defeat.
The DPJ official, who also declined to be named, said the LDP’s support base is collapsing. As an example, he said the DPJ is even garnering support from regional post office executives — a traditional LDP support base.
In addition, voters who supported the Japanese Communist Party are now expected to cast their votes for the DPJ because the JCP did not field candidates in some Hokkaido districts, including Machimura’s, he said.
Regional agricultural and construction business groups, which have also traditionally backed the LDP, established lines of communications with the DPJ this month ahead of the party’s predicted rise to power.
“If the medical association approaches us, the LDP will be finished,” the DPJ official said.
With the wind blowing against the LDP, Yoshio Nakagawa, an LDP Upper House member and the party’s top campaigner in Hokkaido, said Machimura faces a tough time because he has been in the center of the government.
Recognizing the dire situation, Machimura, after stepping down as chief Cabinet secretary last fall under then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, has been making the rounds at homes in his district almost every weekend.
But voters interviewed on the streets here appeared to support Kobayashi instead of Machimura.
A 54-year-old nursing home worker who said she does not have a political affiliation said Machimura’s character changed as his national-level status grew. Based on what she learned through media reports, she said he no longer has compassion for the common people.
“The government should change once,” she said.
A 20-year-old male university student who will be voting for the first time said he is going with the DPJ. “I don’t have a good image (of Machimura),” he said, adding he expects Kobayashi and the DPJ to improve the dire employment situation and push for further child-rearing support.
A 49-year-old department store employee who had been an LDP supporter said he also plans to vote DPJ.
“This time, I want change,” he said, indicating his discontent with the LDP’s rush to talk about raising the 5 percent consumption tax. “Aren’t there many other things that can be done before hiking the consumption tax?”
Reflecting such voter sentiment, polls show the DPJ way out in front. The local DPJ executive said he now feels there is a real possibility all 12 Hokkaido single-seat districts could fall to his party.
Before campaigning began, the local news media questioned if it was even realistic to talk about a clean DPJ sweep, but “everybody now recognizes it is possible,” he said.
This bodes ill for two other LDP heavyweights in Hokkaido — former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, running in the No. 11 district, and former party Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe, running in No. 12.
“This election may be unprecedented,” the DPJ executive said.
In addition to the changes in voter preferences, the DPJ in Hokkaido may benefit from an unlikely quarter: the popular Muneo Suzuki, a former LDP member who now heads New Party Daichi and is a convicted recipient of bribes.
Even though his 2004 conviction was upheld on appeal and is now before the Supreme Court, Suzuki has strong local voter support. In the 2007 Upper House election, New Party Daichi won more than 621,000 votes, or around 21 percent of the votes cast in Hokkaido’s lone multiseat Upper House district.
For Sunday’s poll, in which Suzuki also seeks re-election, New Party Daichi has allied with the DPJ. New Party Daichi is helping DPJ candidates win the single-seat districts, while the DPJ is helping Suzuki and other candidates from his small party win Diet seats through the proportional representation system.
Suzuki said it is “only natural” that Machimura, Nakagawa and Takebe now find the going tough.
“Takebe’s sin is that he is the main culprit behind Hokkaido’s being left out” of government policies, Suzuki said. Takebe served as the LDP’s key executive under the reform-minded Junichiro Koizumi administration.
On Nakagawa, who resigned as finance minister in February after his apparent drunken fiasco at a news briefing following a Group of Seven meeting in Rome, Suzuki said appearing before the press in a half-conscious state was unthinkable.
Suzuki meanwhile said Machimura, a former bureaucrat, typifies hereditary politics as he comes from a family of politicians. “He does not know the heart of Hokkaido,” Suzuki said.
Because all three LDP heavyweights are listed as proportional representation seat candidates, they may survive as Diet lawmakers. But to lose their home districts would be profound.
Suzuki vowed to work hard so that DPJ candidates replace all three.
“To ensure the ‘regime change’ starts in Hokkaido and Hokkaido has its first prime minister, New Party Daichi’s power and cooperation are indispensable,” he said.