SHIZUOKA — It was supposed to be Ichiro Ozawa’s master plan, a strategy that would drive the final nail in the coffin of the Liberal Democratic Party and oust it from Shizuoka Prefecture for good.
Instead, Democratic Party of Japan candidate Naoko Nakamoto has found herself hamstrung by Ozawa’s multiple-ticket tactics as Sunday’s Upper House election nears.
Nakamoto is one of two candidates being fielded by the ruling DPJ in Shizuoka, but is struggling to take the lead among the six candidates vying for the two seats up for grabs.
“It’s not going so easy,” Nakamoto said last week following a campaign speech in Fujinomiya.
In red shirt with khakis and sneakers, the 31-year-old rookie stood on a small wooden box as she called on voters for their support. Her bangs clung to her sweaty forehead as she ended her speech.
“But it’s encouraging how people have been waving their hands back at me,” she said.
The plan to field multiple candidates in constituencies with two or more seats was hatched by none other than DPJ kingpin Ozawa, the mastermind behind the party’s historic win in last summer’s general election.
Ozawa’s game plan seemed convincing at first — the DPJ would monopolize two-seat districts instead of sharing them with the LDP.
That would seriously damage the largest opposition party and pave the way for utter domination by the DPJ, which already holds a majority in the Lower House.
Although some local branches of the party, including Shizuoka, expressed concern that fielding two candidates would split the DPJ’s already shrinking support base and work in favor of the other parties, Ozawa was determined to go the whole nine yards.
The DPJ don fielded two candidates in 10 of the 12 double-seat constituencies, and went as far as cutting off campaign funds to the DPJ’s Shizuoka branch for resisting his proposal.
But the carefully crafted blueprint ran into trouble last month, when Ozawa, embroiled in a financial scandal, was forced to step down as the party’s secretary general at the same time as Yukio Hatoyama quit as prime minister, also under a cloud.
The DPJ enjoyed a short-lived rebound in its approval rating when Naoto Kan took over as prime minister, but his talk of raising the consumption tax has backfired with voters.
The DPJ Shizuoka branch was proven correct, and the party has since reinstated its provision of campaign funds.
But the party did not have time to revise its strategy and pull one of the two Shizuoka candidates, even though it now looks unlikely that they will win both seats.
Nakamoto, a native of Hyogo Prefecture who went through the DPJ’s candidate recruitment process and was chosen in April to run in Shizuoka, was left to fight on her own.
Her campaign had relied on Ozawa’s tactics as the local DPJ branch provided support only to the other DPJ candidate, Yuji Fujimoto.
“We see the other DPJ candidate as a competitor” and not as a colleague that is willing to provide support, said Hitoshi Okubo, a senior member of Nakamoto’s campaign team.
Difficulties running the campaign were expected to begin with, and all they can do now is to move forward, he added.
But given her background as a technician at a semiconductor maker, Nakamoto clearly appears short on support. When her original campaign poster arrived in early April, she acknowledged it was a “crucial item” for her drive because a photo of Ozawa took up the bottom third.
“I am not yet well known,” she wrote on her blog in April, expressing hope that Ozawa’s image would attract voters.
This expectation was nullified even before the election campaign kicked off on June 24. With Ozawa stepping down, Nakamoto was forced to redesign her posters and delete her mentor.
As she lacks support from any specific unions, differentiating herself from other candidates now appears her last resort to attract voters.
“There are things that I can see because I do not come from a political background,” Nakamoto said in a campaign stop last week. She is also playing on the fact that she is the only female candidate in Shizuoka.
“It is a tough situation, but we need to give all efforts to widen our support base,” Nakamoto campaign member Okubo said.
Meanwhile, the other DPJ candidate, Fujimoto, an incumbent Upper House lawmaker who serves as the parliamentary secretary of the transport ministry, is also feeling the heat.
“We are in need of one more push” to keep that seat, Fujimoto said last week at a campaign stop in Ajiro in eastern Shizuoka Prefecture.
The 53-year-old has secured support from the local DPJ branch as well as the Shizuoka division of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).
That would have made him a lock to win a seat if it were any other Upper House election in Shizuoka, had Nakamoto not emerged to sway part of the party’s supporters to her side.
Campaign team members said it will be a “fight to the death” to protect Fujii’s seat in the chamber.
“It would be a lie to say (Ozawa’s plan) has had no impact on us,” said Takeyoshi Aoshima, a senior member of Fujimoto’s campaign team.
He did not comment on Nakamoto’s camp, only saying his team will concentrate on executing their job.
“We need to focus on our goal, and to stress (Fujimoto’s) achievements as a politician, how he has worked for the central government,” Aoshima said. “Securing support from unions is not enough; we need to grab the swing votes as well.”
Local media have reported a slight lead for LDP candidate Shigeki Iwai, 42, and Fujimoto.
Nakamoto is trailing, while Japanese Communist Party candidate Hiromi Watanabe, 49, and Yuta Nakano, 36, of the Happiness Realization Party, are considered long shots.
Meanwhile, organizational support toward each candidate remains split, with many industry groups leaning toward allowing their members to vote as they see fit.
Both local branches of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives and the Japan Fisheries Cooperatives (Zengyoren) opted to allow their members to vote freely.
The LDP has gained support from the local branch of the doctor federation, but New Komeito, which is not fielding a candidate in Shizuoka, appears not to be dedicating organizational votes to a single camp despite having once been in a ruling coalition with the LDP.
Under such circumstances, swing votes are likely to be key to winning one of the two seats, but local voters appear to be unsure of who to put their trust in yet.
“Last time I voted for the DPJ candidate, but things haven’t gone so well since then,” said a 67-year-old resident of Kakegawa in western Shizuoka Prefecture.
The man, who asked to remain anonymous, said he will make up his mind after studying each candidate’s political pledges.
“All I’ve heard so far is how the two DPJ candidates are not getting along well,” said Eriko Tsuchida, a 59-year-old housewife from Fujinomiya. “I voted for the DPJ last time but may go with someone else.”
Such voter sentiment is where Your Party candidate Junichi Kawai is pinning his hopes.
With candidates from two major parties struggling to charm floating voters, Kawai, 35, who was the last to announce his candidacy out of the six running in Shizuoka, has focused his campaign on drawing swing voters that both the DPJ and the LDP have failed to win over.
The former Paralympics gold medal swimmer, who is blind, has a background in teaching at junior high schools in Shizuoka.
“Our goal is to call on those who do not support a specific party,” Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe said last month when he announced Kawai’s candidacy.
“We are not endorsed by any industry or organization,” Kawai, who lost his sight at age 15, said during a campaign stop at Kakegawa last week.
Holding onto an assistant’s arm, he walked energetically and promised voters he will oppose tax hikes and work to reduce the number of lawmakers in the Diet.
Kawai has no experience in politics, but members of his campaign team said the DPJ’s fielding of two candidates is definitely working in his favor.
“The two DPJ candidates are eating each other’s votes. The LDP candidate is stronger than expected, but I’d say the election is still up for grabs,” said Kiyoji Sawai, a senior member of Kawai’s campaign team. “The election would have been all but decided if the DPJ had only endorsed a single candidate.”
“There would not be any room for us to run against the two major parties (if that was the case),” Sawai added, expressing confidence that Kawai could be the one to take advantage of Ozawa’s plan, which is looking increasingly flawed.