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Staff writer

OSAKA — The election four years ago of comedians “Knock” Yokoyama and Yukio Aoshima as the governors of Osaka and Tokyo, respectively, brought to attention the sway held by unaffiliated voters.

When Aoshima announced his decision not to seek re-election, he opened up, and heated up, the upcoming Tokyo race. With a number of candidates to choose from, voters uncommitted to any political party are again expected to be the deciding factor in the election’s outcome.

In Osaka, however, the April 11 vote has received a lukewarm reception. Because there are fewer contenders in the race than in the capital, the media has little to work with and voter choices are limited. The serious contenders are Yokoyama and Makoto Ajisaka, a former philosophy professor backed by the Japanese Communist Party’s Osaka chapter.

Other political parties’ local chapters — including the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest force in the prefectural assembly — decided to withhold support to any candidate because it could not pick one powerful enough to beat the popular Yokoyama.

This is the first time since the party’s foundation in 1955 that the LDP will neither field its own candidate nor support an independent in an Osaka gubernatorial election. “It is very regrettable that we could not back any candidate. But as we do not hold a majority in the prefectural assembly, with just 44 seats out of 113, the LDP alone could not endorse a candidate,” said Yoshikazu Kamanaka, secretary general of the party’s Osaka Prefectural Assembly members. “What we tried to do last fall was to establish a non-Communist coalition with other parties, as we have for the last five elections,” Kamanaka said.

In the past, candidates were chosen by a consensus within the coalition. The formula met with success the first four times it was put to use, although Yokoyama caused an upset in 1995. This year, the plan failed to even produce a candidate.

New Komeito, the second-largest force with 22 assembly seats, asked that the LDP propose a candidate for which it could extend or reserve support, and did not seek to consolidate the coalition framework, Kamanaka said. Among potential candidates named were Taichi Sakaiya, director general of the Economic Planning Agency, and Kohei Nakabo, a lawyer and president of Housing Loan Administration Corp., but all declined. “Before the end of the year, New Komeito seemed to have assumed a pro-Yokoyama stance. Thus, the coalition platform collapsed,” Kamanaka said.

Akira Nakai of New Komeito’s Osaka chapter denied that his party is backing the incumbent. He did say, however, that the party would not have lent its support to a jointly fielded candidate unless the candidate was sure to beat Yokoyama. “The certainty of winning the election was the most important element of deciding whether to join the coalition,” Nakai said. “We would have backed Nakabo if he had said yes. But the choice of Nakabo was impossible from the beginning,” said Nakai, indicating Nakabo’s current post as HLC head is keeping him busy enough as it is.

New Komeito was none too keen on the non-Communist coalition itself, he added. “The coalition-backed candidate lost four years ago. So we did not want to repeat the same mistake,” Nakai said. Yokoyama, who termed the non-Communist coalition “collusion,” garnered more than 1.6 million votes in 1995.

Because he has again refused any party support, no political organization has endorsed him.

But some, like campaign officials of the JCP-backed Ajisaka, say Yokoyama is anything but an independent. They support the view that the LDP’s decision not to support a candidate means the party is backing the incumbent.

The officials, however, are not convinced that Yokoyama’s popularity is as secure as widely reported, particularly in light of the stagnant economic climate and the prefecture’s serious financial woes. Ajisaka compared Yokoyama’s popularity with that of Tamagotchi, the electronic pet that created quite a buzz two years ago but is now out of fashion.

As the parties’ indecision has frustrated voters by offering little choice at the polls, one group of Osaka women has decided to add its own representative to the list of candidates.

When it became clear that only the JCP would field a candidate, Minako Fujiki, a 38-year-old mother of two and a representative of a nonprofit organization for working women, set up a volunteer group to back a female candidate last month. After failing to reach an agreement with other organizations, Fujiki decided to put her own name on the list. With the help of 200 volunteers, Fujiki’s group managed to secure 3 million yen to be deposited for official registration.

“The choice was too small, and none of the candidates tackle labor issues,” Fujiki said. “We would have supported any candidate regardless of political affiliation as long as he or she dealt with employment issues. There are a lot of people who want to work but cannot find a job.”

Fujiki is to register as an official candidate today, becoming the first woman to do so in the history of Osaka gubernatorial elections, she said.

Fujiki said she wants to prove that ordinary people can run for the post and that the current method of costly election campaigns is wrong. She also blames the media for creating the image of the governor’s poll as a one-on-one fight between Yokoyama and Ajisaka.

However, Kamanaka of the LDP sees the whole issue differently. “Tokyo’s race has become such a big event just because Gov. Aoshima decided not to run. Osaka’s election would have been just as big only if Gov. Yokoyama had done the same,” he said.

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