The outspoken mother of an HIV-infected man who became a symbol of citizens’ fight for justice during the 1995-96 tainted blood scandal, is challenging established political parties in the Oct. 22 House of Representatives by-election in Tokyo’s western suburbs.
Etsuko Kawada, 51, attacked the state and drug firms for negligence after tainted blood products infected her hemophiliac son, Ryuhei, 24, with HIV. And now she is calling on voters in Tokyo’s No. 21 single-seat constituency of Tachikawa, Hino and Akishima to change politics through “people power.”
“Five years ago, massive protests by young people rocked the Health and Welfare Ministry. Changes in public opinion can change politics, and I want to generate such opinion in the No. 21 district,” Kawada said in a speech on the first day of the campaign.
Flanked by her son and 50 students and volunteers, Kawada delivered her speech from a makeshift platform made of beer crates.
House of Councilors member Atsuo Nakamura, who tapped Kawada to run in the race, also urged voters to “break the myth that only candidates backed by political parties can win.” Nakamura, a longtime supporter of those infected with HIV through tainted blood products, is known as a “lone wolf” in national politics for his independent behavior.
Kawada is running a completely nonpartisan campaign dependent on volunteers, now numbering more than 350. Her entry into the race has turned what might have been a boring election into an unpredictable contest.
The election was called after Joji Yamamoto, 38, stepped down as a Lower House member last month over allegations of fraud. He also lost his membership in the Democratic Party of Japan.
Kawada’s candidacy has apparently restored optimism among some voters disillusioned by the Yamamoto scandal. She said some people have told her they are glad they now have someone to vote for.
Also in the race are Akihisa Nagashima, 38, a foreign affairs expert backed by the DPJ; Teiko Kudo, 51, a school lunch cook fielded by the Social Democratic Party; and Sekiichi Kato, 43, a former member of the Tachikawa Municipal Assembly of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
In a rare policy change, the Japanese Communist Party withdrew its candidate, Susumu Suzuki, 60, and decided to support Kawada. The party helped Kawada and her son during the HIV debacle.
“If she were not running in the election, I would abstain from voting. All the other candidates are lackluster,” said Keiko Kishi, 50, a friend of Kawada helping her campaign as a volunteer.
Among the three parties fielding candidates in the race, the DPJ is believed to be fighting the toughest battle. A Tuesday night canvassing speech by Nagashima only drew a dozen or so people.
“We were cheated by Yamamoto,” said Yoshio Kinoshita, 61, who voted for the DPJ candidate last time. “Kawada could win. She is a complete amateur in politics, but it could work positively for her this time.”
The disgraced lawmaker is a former secretary to DPJ Secretary General Naoto Kan, who gained popularity during the HIV scandal when, as health minister, he had bureaucrats submit hidden documents related to the case.
Asked about Kan in an interview with Kyodo News, Kawada said anyone in his post at the time could have done the same thing, as information disclosure was almost inevitable following the protests. She expressed distrust of the DPJ, calling it a “collusive union.”
DPJ candidate Nagashima, a U.S. think tank researcher and former secretary to LDP lawmaker Nobuteru Ishihara, also once talked with LDP officials about the possibility of running in the next Lower House election as an LDP candidate.
Nakamura said the DPJ is fielding a “scarecrow” candidate and criticized political parties’ tendency to field candidates regardless of their aptitude as politicians.
The Diet member said he hopes the race will become a straight fight between Kawada and Kato, who finished second in the June 25 Lower House election with about 73,000 votes in the constituency of 350,000 eligible voters.
Yamamoto won with about 98,000 votes, while Suzuki garnered about 36,000 votes.
Nakamura said a victory by Kawada would shock Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s government. In the June poll, the LDP faced a humiliating setback in Tokyo constituencies.
Criticizing the systematic vote-collection methods of organizations, Kawada said each voter should cast a ballot without the pressure of party restrictions.
Kawada’s camp, which began campaigning without much money and staff, has attracted many college students and housewives as volunteers, and the number is increasing daily through the Internet and other media, according to a campaign staff member.
“Victory is, of course, important,” Kawada said. “But I think it is also vital to launch a new type of campaign during the race.”
She said she is glad to have a new group of young volunteers following in the footsteps of the thousands of people who protested at the Health Ministry in 1995 and 1996, leading to the March 1996 settlement of a class-action suit filed in 1989 over the HIV debacle.
The suit charged that the ministry and drug firms continued to import unheated blood products during the 1980s even though they were warned of the HIV risks.
Those infected through the products as well as celebrities were among the participants in the protests, which intensified after Ryuhei had his name released in March 1995 as the first plaintiff in the suit.
“I have long believed that what I can do is urge young people to take an interest in political issues. But as Ryuhei, who hoped to become a teacher and alter the education system, changed his mind and now hopes to create a political school, I want to seek my own path to achieve this goal,” Kawada said.
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