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Even Aso can’t rely on shoo-in notion

by Eric Johnston

IIZUKA, Fukuoka Pref. — Given his nationwide unpopularity, not a few candidates from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would prefer that their leader, Prime Minister Taro Aso, not visit them during the election campaign lest this worsens their chances.

But Aso is so confident of his own victory in the Fukuoka No. 8 district that local supporters say he has no need to actually put in an appearance in his own constituency.

“The prime minister will be busy during the campaign helping other candidates in districts where the races are tighter,” said Shuichi Saruwatari, a supporter who works in Aso’s election office in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Certainly, Fukuoka voters don’t need to be exposed to sound trucks repeatedly blaring Aso’s name to know he is running. The prime minister’s family was once very influential in the region and the name “Aso” appears on signs for a number of businesses and public facilities in Iizuka, making it virtually impossible for a challenger to achieve a similar level of name recognition.

However, although most polls indicate Aso is likely to retain his seat, growing discontent with the prime minister stemming from the poor local economy and demographic changes could make the race a lot closer than many predict.

Aso, 68, is being challenged by the Democratic Party of Japan’s Gosei Yamamoto, 37, whose energy and willingness to take on what had seemed one of the safest and most secure seats in the country has caught Aso supporters off guard.

Like DPJ candidate Kuniyoshi Noda, who’s running against the LDP’s Makoto Koga in the neighboring district, Yamamoto is gaining ground among people who feel the LDP and its ruling bloc partner, New Komeito, have failed to deliver on their promises of economic prosperity.

“Iizuka has a large number of shuttered buildings, and more and more people are questioning just what, exactly, Aso has done to improve the local economy,” said Masashi Haranaka, a representative of Yamamoto’s office.

Much of Yamamoto’s support comes from the unions at a Toyota factory in Aso’s district that opened a few years ago, bringing in younger workers and families.

But he is also picking up support from older service-industry businesses that have shut down or are hurting, as well as aging residents concerned about education and social issues.

Aso’s biggest support continues to come from farmers, local construction firms and long-established businesses that have benefited from central government contracts for infrastructure projects.

Although a few polls in late July suggested Aso might be in serious trouble, when the campaign began on Aug. 18 most pundits said he was likely to win by amassing the 120,000 to 130,000 votes his staff believes are needed to secure victory. He won the 2005 election with 145,000 votes to his closest challenger’s 87,000.

DPJ officials, however, hope Yamamoto, even if he loses the race for the constituency, might still get into the Diet through the proportional representation system if he gets around 100,000 votes.

“There’s a generational change going on and the worsening economy is turning people against Aso. Still, Yamamoto will have a tough time winning unless there is a last-minute groundswell of support for him. But in the next election, a DPJ candidate could well unseat Aso,” said Masako Nagai, 30, a housewife who lives in Iizuka and says she’ll vote for Yamamoto.