They are closely watching the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race. In fact, they will be the first to receive the verdict of voters on the party under its new leader.

On March 13, a group of 40 LDP members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly showed up in front of the venue of the LDP convention in Tokyo and started handing out leaflets harshly criticizing the party leadership as thousands of rank-and-file members hurried into the Nippon Budokan hall.

Wearing white headbands calling for “the regeneration of the LDP,” the rebellious group defied orders from party leaders to stop their demonstration, while inside the hall Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori promised a party election to choose his successor.

Their leaflet said, “If it remains unchanged, the Liberal Democratic Party will face the most tragic and worst scenario — that is, death as a political party.”

One of the ways to avert this, they argued, would be to choose the unpopular Mori’s successor in an election open to rank-and-file party members and their supporters.

While party leaders initially tried to ignore their plea, they found there was support for the idea among LDP members at the local level.

LDP leaders eventually agreed to let the party’s 47 prefectural chapters hold a preliminary election to decide who their representatives would vote for in the April 24 presidential election. Three votes each were allocated to the 47 chapters, accounting for about 30 percent of the 487 votes to be cast in the race.

“We have been calling for an open party presidential election and, in that sense, we achieved our initial goal,” said Tadayoshi Matsubara, a first-term metropolitan assemblyman from Ota Ward.

In Tokyo, the preliminary election will be held Sunday and Monday by some 167,000 party members at 97 polling stations, with absentee ballots to be accepted by mail.

The metro assembly members have reason to be concerned — they will be seeking re-election in a quadrennial poll on June 24.

The LDP, with 49 seats, remains the biggest single group within the 127-seat assembly. However, the party has suffered devastating losses in recent national elections, signaling dwindling support among urban voters.

In the Lower House election in June, six incumbent and former Cabinet members from the LDP failed to win re-election in their Tokyo constituencies.

The LDP also suffered humiliating losses to independent candidates in the last two Tokyo gubernatorial elections — to Yukio Aoshima in 1995 and to Shintaro Ishihara in 1999.

The Tokyo assembly elections have often attracted close attention as a bellwether for voter trends in national elections. In this year’s election, which will be followed about a month later by the crucial Upper House election, LDP candidates in the metropolis are again facing an uphill battle amid public criticism of the party.

“Local politicians have taken a hit for the mistakes at the party headquarters,” said Hirohiko Sato, chief of the LDP members in the metropolitan assembly.

Party executives at the headquarters “should face voters in front of the railway stations in the morning,” he said, making reference to stories of his colleagues being harassed by angry commuters at train stations.

“If the party remains unchanged, we will suffer a major loss,” Sato said, adding that the prospect for the coming assembly election is even gloomier than in recent polls when the LDP suffered poor results, such as in 1989 amid public anger over the introduction of the consumption tax and in 1993 amid the so-called new party boom.

“Actually, (the 1989 election) was better, because back then we could have policy debate (over the tax),” he said. “But this time around, they don’t even listen to us, turning away at the mention of the LDP’s name.”

The sense of crisis is especially strong among junior members in their first or second term, who have yet to build a solid network of supporters and are most vulnerable to swinging voter sentiment.

Yet, for the assembly members, the LDP headquarters appeared indifferent to their concerns. “We were seriously considering leaving the party and running as independents (for the assembly election) around the time of the party convention,” Matsubara said.

For now, the rebel LDP members in Tokyo say they will wait to see the outcome of the party election. Some said they favor Junichiro Koizumi over Ryutaro Hashimoto, who they said will not be able to convince voters that the LDP has changed.

They are concerned that the preliminary election, held to reflect the opinion of the party rank-and-file, may prove to be a double-edged sword. If a candidate who wins in the vote by local party members is defeated by a rival in the Diet members’ vote, the party could again face criticism that it is ignoring public opinion, they said.

Media forecasts point to this very scenario, in which Koizumi, a former health minister with wide popular appeal, would outperform former Prime Minister Hashimoto in the preliminary race, but Hashimoto, with the strength of his own faction and its allies, would beat Koizumi — most likely in a runoff in the Diet members’ vote.

Then what? Sato, without being specific, did not rule out “some dramatic action” in the event of such a result.

“If the outcome of the election differs from that of the preliminary race, the LDP may never make a comeback,” he said.

Yet, whatever the result may be, an en masse defection of rebellious Tokyo assembly members is unlikely since there are strong reservations about such a move among veteran members.

“I can understand the feeling of young members, but we should stick with the party,” said Kozo Tanaka, now in his fifth four-year term. “I already had my election posters made with the name of the LDP on them. I will run in the election as an LDP member.”

Meanwhile, there have been barely veiled intentions among some LDP assembly members to ride on the popularity of Gov. Ishihara, whose relationship with the LDP in the assembly was anything but cozy when he launched his administration two years ago.

While Sato denied rumors of the creation of a new urban party with Ishihara as its head, he and his colleagues have supported Ishihara’s policies almost 100 percent in recent assembly sessions. Many LDP assemblymen carry photos of them side by side with the popular governor in their campaign posters and leaflets.

“Honestly, it’s an election year performance,” said Yoshihiro Hayasaka, who plans to run as an independent from Suginami Ward in the coming assembly election, as he described the moves by his former party colleagues.

“I doubt they really have the guts to leave the party,” said 32-year-old Hayasaka, who quit as an official at the LDP Tokyo branch after it refused to back him in the election. “I don’t think the Tokyo LDP differs much from the party headquarters.”

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