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LDP by-election win may be slap at DPJ but little else

by Alex Martin

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Nobutaka Machimura’s victory Sunday in the Lower House by-election in Hokkaido for the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency has dealt another blow to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which suffered a huge setback in the July Upper House election.

Experts said the DPJ’s latest setback reflected the public’s disappointment toward the ruling party as it struggles to stay afloat amid a string of money scandals and foreign policy blunders that have rocked Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration, whose second Cabinet debuted in September.

In facing a divided Diet in which it lacks an Upper House majority, the ruling party will now be under further pressure from the opposition as it seeks to pass a supplementary budget for fiscal 2010.

“The public’s dissatisfaction toward the DPJ has manifested itself in the form of its candidate’s defeat in the election,” said Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of media and politics at Gakushuin Women’s College.

“The DPJ has clearly lost the high public expectation it enjoyed when it won last year’s general election,” he said.

Machimura grabbed his 10th victory in the Lower House, garnering 125,636 votes and defeating DPJ contender and former transport ministry bureaucrat Shigeyuki Nakamae, who collected 94,135 votes, and three other contenders.

The seat was previously held by DPJ Lower House lawmaker Chiyomi Kobayashi, who resigned in June after a union official was convicted over illegal donations to her election campaign.

During a news conference Sunday evening following the announcement that he was the projected winner of the election, Machimura, 66, emphasized the importance of his victory.

“This is the first national election under Kan’s reshuffled Cabinet, and I believe it has reflected the most immediate popular will,” he said.

During his campaign, Machimura, who served as chief Cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, criticized the DPJ over its political funds scandals, including the ones involving DPJ power broker Ichiro Ozawa, who faces indictment over alleged accounting irregularities in his political funds management body.

The DPJ candidate’s defeat also came after Japan’s recent spat with China over an incident near the Senkaku Islands. A Chinese trawler skipper was arrested after ramming his vessel at two Japanese Coast Guard boats trying to board it near the Japan-controlled, China-claimed uninhabited islets.

“As Machimura said, the election reflects public opinion, and although it is only a by-election contesting a single seat, it will definitely give the LDP a boost in morale,” Ishizawa said.

During a news conference Monday morning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku expressed remorse for the Hokkaido defeat, but downplayed the impact.

“I’m sorry for the results. A victory would have definitely added energy in running the government, but it’s nothing to fret about,” he said.

In light of the Ozawa funds scandal, which was considered one of the main factors that led to the DPJ candidate’s defeat, Sengoku said it was up to the party leadership to talk to Ozawa about whether to summon him to the Diet for sworn testimony, as demanded by the opposition camp.

But while the DPJ’s outlook has turned cloudy, experts say the LDP is also not in any position to be overjoyed by its candidate’s victory.

Satoru Matsubara, economic professor at Toyo University, said voters in the Hokkaido No. 5 district must have faced a tough choice between an inexperienced rookie DPJ candidate and a veteran LDP lawmaker considered the embodiment of old-school LDP politics.

“It would have left a far better impression if the LDP presented a fresh candidate who represented the new LDP and won a landslide victory, but they ended up with Machimura,” he said.

“And no matter how much Machimura preaches of the importance of clean politics, there’s no denying that he represents something else.”

Ishizawa of Gakushuin Women’s College agreed, saying that while the public’s support for the DPJ was sagging, the public also did not expect much from the LDP.

“Nevertheless, the LDP will be emboldened by its victory and put up a stronger stand against the DPJ during Diet deliberations,” he said. “And that will only lead to a stalemate.”

The DPJ’s priority during the current extraordinary Diet session is to pass a supplementary budget to help the economy overcome deflation and to cope with the rise of the yen.