The apparently overwhelming popularity of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will be put to its first real test in less than 10 days, when the results of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election — campaigning for which began Friday — are announced June 24. And in spite of his popularity, those involved in the vote say it is unlikely the Koizumi phenomena will give Liberal Democratic Party candidates a landslide victory.

A LDP staffer at work in Tokyo’s Taito Ward

The contest, in which one in 10 Japanese voters is eligible to cast a ballot, traditionally mirrors the national political situation, with its results indicating political parties’ electoral fortunes in the ensuing national election.

While pleased with the popularity of posters featuring Koizumi, who is also president of the party, LDP candidate Yukuo Hattori admitted, “No, I don’t think it will directly lead to me winning more votes.”

His office in Taito Ward started selling the posters three weeks ago after receiving inquiries from the public about the hugely popular pictures, initially sold at the party’s headquarters in Nagata-cho, the nation’s political center, in Chiyoda Ward. Up to 10,000 posters bearing Koizumi’s beaming face are being sold a day.

Hattori’s office is selling about 30 posters a day, according to one of his staff.

“I think Koizumi’s popularity is a separate phenomenon. It would be a different story if they were paying 50 yen to buy my poster,” said the 58-year-old candidate, who is seeking his second term.

Public opinion polls conducted by major media organizations show that Koizumi’s administration has enjoyed approval ratings of well over 80 percent, in stark contrast to the single-digit approval rate that Yoshiro Mori, Koizumi’s predecessor, had in the last days of his government. The approval rating for the LDP as a whole now stands at around 30 percent under Koizumi, an increase of only 10 percentage points on the party’s popularity under Mori.

The election of the 127 seats in the metropolitan assembly will be the first large-scale test for the LDP under its new leader. The result of the vote is also seen as an indication of the Upper House election scheduled for July 29.

In 1989, when the controversial introduction of the consumption tax was the focus of the elections, the LDP lost 20 seats in the assembly and the party lost its majority in the subsequent Upper House election.

Again, in 1993, the LDP was unable to win over the voters for the Tokyo election and later, in the Diet, it lost its majority standing for the first time in 38 years and became an opposition force.

The prevailing sentiment of most of those involved in this year’s elections is that at best, Koizumi’s popularity eases the hostility that had built up to the scandal-tainted LDP under Mori.

“If we study the situation carefully, support for the LDP has not grown much,” said Hirohiko Sato, head of the LDP’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members. “It is just that the wind is not blowing against us as much as when Mr. Mori was our leader.”

Sato maintained that in local assembly elections, voters are more candidate-oriented and therefore the LDP candidates cannot merely expect to ride to victory on Koizumi’s coattails.

Yet, while Sato and other LDP candidates are downplaying “the Koizumi factor,” moves are still afoot to cash in on the country’s hottest political commodity and woo the voters of the metropolis.

In addition to campaign posters featuring Koizumi and individual candidates, 50 T-shirts bearing Koizumi’s face have been delivered to the campaign office of each LDP candidate.

“It’s small, I said his face should be printed all over the back,” Sato said.

Among the candidates, a strong sense of pride has been growing in their victory over the old guard within the LDP, which eventually led to Koizumi, a party maverick but a public hero, becoming prime minister in late April.

It was the LDP’s metro assembly members who called for an early party presidential election in a bid to replace the deeply unpopular Mori. The Tokyo politicians threatened to leave the party if Mori was kept on as its leader.

After Koizumi’s inauguration, the LDP’s Tokyo chapter hastily added three more candidates to its list, the last name only being added as late as Monday.

“We wish we could have added more, but we had a very limited time (after Koizumi became prime minister),” said Nobuyuki Akiba, a campaign manager of the LDP’s Tokyo chapter. The party will field 55 candidates in the election.

Things are looking worse for the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party in the Diet but only the fourth-largest force in the metro assembly. The party faces an uphill battle as it has been unable to project itself as a convincing alternative to the LDP.

During the last days of Mori’s reign, the DPJ was projected to double its current 13 seats in the metro assembly.

However, the commitment to reform that it relied on to win votes was overshadowed by the emergence of reform-minded Koizumi.

“DPJ party head Yukio Hatoyama and Secretary General Naoto Kan will be no match for Koizumi when they appear on the campaign trail,” said Shunji Kubota, the party’s campaign manager and a former secretary to Kan.

“We are letting voters know that a number of the LDP old guard are standing in Koizumi’s way and it is us who are trying to make him carry out reforms,” Kubota said. “But I know this approach does not appeal strongly to the voters.”

Without the strong hostility toward the LDP among the public, the lack of a solid support base has become a growing concern for the DPJ. Twenty-nine of the party’s 39 candidates are challenging an incumbent.

The Japanese Communist Party, the second-largest force in the assembly, is hoping to attract voters by calling their attention to what it says is the “real nature” of the charismatic prime minister.

“Fortunately, in the one month that he has been in office, it has become clear that Koizumi is a hawk and his reform plans will inflict pain on the socially weak,” said Yoji Kimura, secretary general of the JCP’s Tokyo assembly members.

“Depending on how we campaign, it could be more advantageous to be facing Koizumi than Mori, because the DPJ seemed to stand to gain most at that time,” he said.

Yet even the Communists are careful in their attacks on the prime minister.

“We cannot just criticize him, given his popularity. We have to make a logical appeal that is in line with public sentiment,” Kimura said.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, another hot political commodity, left Monday for the Galapagos Islands, ostensibly on a study tour to inspect the way in which nature conservation and tourism can work together, with the intention of applying the methods to the Ogasawara islands south of Tokyo.

However, the timing of his trip, which will last until June 21, has led to widespread speculation that the popular governor is trying to steer clear of party politics.

Muneyuki Shindo, a professor of public administration at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, agreed with the LDP’s wariness.

“I don’t think there will be a landslide victory for the LDP triggered by Koizumi’s popularity,” he said, citing the huge gap between the approval ratings for Koizumi and those for the LDP.

Shindo pointed out that the Tokyo election campaign is missing debates on policies, which should really be the focus of the poll.

“Policy debates are almost entirely absent from the campaign, as usual, despite a number of pressing issues involving the capital, such as the critical fiscal situation of the metropolitan government, which has 7.8 trillion yen in outstanding bonds,” he said.

As a result, Tokyo voters have stopped seeing candidates as their local representatives and instead generally cast ballots according to how they see the situation at the nation’s political center, he said.

“They say the Tokyo contest is a mirror of national politics, but the situation merely reflects the failure of local parties that have neglected to work for their voters,” he said.

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