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LDP heavyweight Koga running for his life

Rural district tired of pork from Tokyo

by Eric Johnston

OMUTA, Fukuoka Pref. — For decades, voters in the Fukuoka No. 7 district, which encompasses the southern part of the prefecture, have always said, “Makoto ni arigato gozaimasu” come election time.

This phrase, normally translated along the lines of “I offer my sincere thanks,” has always had another meaning among voters here.

In their case, it means “Thanks to Makoto,” an expression of gratitude to Makoto Koga, one of the most powerful politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Thanks to Koga, the saying went, this largely rural district now has modern roads, bridges and interchanges.

Decades ago, much of this transportation infrastructure, local voters agree, was necessary. But now, Koga, 69, finds fewer people are thanking him.

A growing number of voters in towns like Omuta say years of Koga’s assurances that building modern roads would attract outside investment, bring jobs and revive the economy were false, and that only Koga’s friends in Tokyo and a few local construction firms that have always supported him have benefited.

“New roads and bridges don’t mean that much now because young people are heading to Fukuoka (city) or elsewhere to find work. Those who remain are realizing that what they need more are welfare facilities and other social services, not another huge construction project,” said Keisuke Okamura, 57, who lives near Omuta, the heart of Koga’s district.

“Koga’s problem is that he has spent so long in Tokyo that he’s lost touch with his constituents.”

Koga is now in a tight race with first-time candidate Kuniyoshi Noda, 51, of the Democratic Party of Japan.

The two know each other well. Noda once worked for Koga, and Noda’s announcement he would run against his old boss shocked Koga, who said he was “betrayed.”

Koga was, and to a large extent remains, one of the most powerful and influential politicians, if often behind the scenes. A former transport minister and LDP secretary general, he was more recently chairman of the party’s Election Strategy Council before resigning to take the blame for the LDP losses in July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Still, “a politician’s politician” is how supporters in Omuta describe him. For admirers and enemies, Koga remains the epitome of the old-fashioned, back-room wheeler-dealer who twists arms to get legislation passed or funding approved for various projects.

In speeches, he proudly admits he’s a member of the “Road Tribe” of Diet politicians whose expertise lies in bringing large-scale construction projects to local constituencies.

But Koga was also once a kingmaker among the various LDP factions and past head of the once extremely politically powerful Japan War Bereaved Families Association, which wants the Emperor to visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Yet he also took the lead, in 2007, to form a new group of Diet members committed to improving relations with China.

In his home district, however, a growing number of people who once voted for the politician’s politician without question are showing they are more sympathetic toward Noda and the DPJ. Opinion polls over the past month indicate Koga is now behind and will likely lose.

At a rally in Hirokawa on Aug. 19, more than 100 people of all ages, ranging from owners of small businesses to farmers to the elderly, came out to hear Noda speak.

“The politics of industry getting tax money and permits to build, and central government politicians and bureaucrats doing as they please continues,” Noda said. “Useless projects like bridges to nowhere most be stopped, and authority for the use of tax money must be transferred to local governments.”

The backlash against Koga and Tokyo-based decision-making has local LDP supporters worried. Koga, who in past elections never campaigned directly for his own seat, now finds himself forced to come back to the district to try to re-connect with voters.

Appearing in Omuta on Aug. 18, Koga, who was first elected in 1980, said politics is about results, experience and responsibility.

“Politics should be able to bring long-term prosperity to the locality the political leader serves,” he told a crowd of supporters before heading back to Tokyo the following day.

But pressure from his support group to spend more time in his district rather than campaign on behalf of others has caused local voters to see more of Koga this election than in past races.

“Koga (is reminding) voters of all he has accomplished,” said Miyoto Oki, a representative of Koga’s campaign.

Oki admitted this campaign has been particularly tough but said Koga’s supporters are reminding voters, especially younger voters critical of what they see as pork-barrel projects, of his past accomplishments and of what they say are political realities.

“You can’t attract business investment without a proper transportation infrastructure. You also need to show that you’re responsible on a wide variety of issues,” Oki said. “And experience, especially dealing with the Tokyo bureaucracy, is critical. That’s the message of this campaign.”

Koga’s supporters have been telling voters and supporters that if the DPJ wins, it will align itself closely with smaller opposition parties whose policies on national issues like defense and the emperor system are anathema to many conservatives.

“This election is less about being against the DPJ, per se, as it is being against other parties that will likely support the DPJ,” Oki said.

For their part, DPJ officials say they don’t believe the polls that are showing Noda ahead.

“Koga’s political organization is still strong and has deep connections among local voters,” said Daisuke Nakaya, a representative of Noda’s Omuta office. “They’re going around, door to door, person to person, soliciting votes rather than conducting splashy mass media campaigns, and that could be very effective on election day.”

Noda and the DPJ, however, have tapped into voter anger over public works projects. They point to one bridge in particular, which critics have dubbed “the Makoto Bridge.”

It is a central government-led project that cost ¥4.3 billion and was completed in 2002. LDP officials originally predicted 2,000 vehicles a day would cross the 293-meter span, which connects the towns of Kurume and Yame.

But as of last year, only about 200 vehicles a day were crossing the bridge.

Upper House DPJ member Tsutomu Okubo, who is from Kurume and represents Fukuoka, said at one of Noda’s rallies that the bridge is a symbol of the desire among Fukuoka voters to end the politics of the past and think about the future.

“The battle between Noda and Koga is being watched nationwide and even abroad, as it is symbolic of the desire of local voters to decide for themselves how best to use tax money on the things they really need,” Okubo said.