Staff writerKOBE — The Kobe mayoral election is slated for this Oct. 26, but Tsuka Izuta would rather stay in that day than spend the 1,000 yen in transportation costs to get to a voting booth.Although she is a registered voter in Nada Ward, 68-year-old Izuta has abstained from voting in any elections for the last 2 1/2 years since moving to a temporary housing unit on Port Island in Chuo Ward. Like some 19,000 others in Kobe, Izuta was forced to move into a temporary shelter when her Nada Ward home was destroyed in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. “If I could cast a ballot here, I would vote,” she said. “But the changes will only be small, whoever becomes the mayor.”Although three candidates kicked off the official campaign last week, the race is viewed as a straight contest between the incumbent, 73-year-old Kazutoshi Sasayama, and Kazuo Ohnishi, 44, deputy chief physician at Higashi Kobe Hospital.The other candidate is Tsutomu Murai, 63, a managing director of a data processing service firm.An incumbent candidate seeking re-election is usually considered to hold the advantage. However, that is not the case in this election, in which such emotional issues as financial assistance to quake survivors and a plan to build a local airport off Kobe port are key controversies, said Takaji Hagihara, a spokesman for Sasayama’s campaign.Since the quake, the Kobe Municipal Government under Sasayama’s leadership became the target of criticism over these very election issues, while the number of elderly people dying alone in temporary shelters continued to grow.In a speech announcing his candidacy last month, Ohnishi accused the mayor of supporting big business rather than residents. Ohnishi, however, pledges to establish a law that would give up to 5 million yen to each household that suffered loss of property in the quake, and see that plans for the airport are suspended if elected to office.Although the proposed law has already been discussed in the Diet, the central government appears reluctant to spend taxpayers’ money to compensate disaster victims for property losses.Sasayama, on the other hand, insists the airport project go ahead in order to revitalize the city’s economy, while assuring that Kobe will take measures to assist residents financially by extending existing programs. “Mr. Sasayama has mapped out about 150 programs to support residents and businesses since the quake. But it’s difficult to give a sufficient explanation of his policies to voters and get understanding from them in a short speech,” Hagihara said.Ohnishi, who has no previous experience in politics or government administration, also faces the challenge of poor name recognition, said Yasushi Hirata, secretary general of his campaign headquarters. “He entered the race about a month ago. We are working hard to publicize his name, his policies and his personality, but we wish we could have had more time to prepare for the election,” Hirata said.Observers predict that if voter turnout is as low as it was for the mayoral election four years ago, Ohnishi, who is backed by the Japanese Communist Party and New Socialist Party, may have a chance of winning.
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