Several Democratic Party of Japan politicians have either announced plans to run in gubernatorial or mayoral elections or are contemplating doing so ahead of nationwide unified local elections scheduled for April.

The moves apparently reflect declining support for the largest opposition party and lingering discord among party lawmakers, and will undoubtedly be a cause for concern among DPJ leaders as they try to secure viable candidates for the next Lower House election.

Shigefumi Matsuzawa, a Lower Hosue member elected from the Kanagawa No. 9 district, unveiled Wednesday his bid for the governorship of Kanagawa Prefecture on April 13.

Ban Kugimiya, elected to the Lower House from the Oita No. 1 district, has indicated his readiness to run in the Oita mayoral election.

According to DPJ sources, several other Lower House members are contemplating campaigns in local elections in April.

Officially, party leaders welcome such moves. “It is necessary to change the nation’s politics from the local level,” says DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada.

However, the lawmakers’ departure comes at a time when the DPJ continues to suffer declining support among voters. A Kyodo News survey in January showed that only 7.7 percent of the respondents support the DPJ, well below the 33.1 percent for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The DPJ’s image was also severely tarnished last year when it had to hold two party presidential elections in just four months. Even after Naoto Kan returned to head the party in December, several DPJ lawmakers defected from the party to either join the ruling camp or stand as independents.

A younger-generation DPJ lawmaker, rumored to be planning to run in a gubernatorial election, said, “Even if I can win re-election as a Lower House member in the next election, there is little chance that the DPJ will become a governing party. In a gubernatorial or mayoral election, one victory will put you in the ruling position.”

Many junior lawmakers in the party admire figures like Mie Gov. Masaya Kitagawa, who won fame as a “reformist” governor after giving up a Diet seat to enter local politics, according to a veteran DPJ member. They are also attracted to the idea that as they are still young, they can again try their hands at national politics after serving as local government heads, he added.

Speaking Saturday in Ogori, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Kan emphasized his ambitions for the DPJ-led opposition to topple the LDP from power.

“If we campaign in the 300 single-seat constituencies urging people to vote for a ruling party (candidate) if they want Prime Minister Koizumi, or for an opposition party (candidate) if they want ‘Prime Minister Kan,’ it would be like having a presidential election and a House of Representatives election at the same time,” said Kan.

“If we can run the race this way, there is more than a 50 percent chance that the ruling camp will lose a majority (in the Lower House),” Kan said in his speech at a hotel.

To achieve this, Kan said he will make efforts to ensure that opposition parties cooperate in fielding joint candidates in many of the the single-seat electoral districts.

While the current four-year term of Lower House members runs through June 2004, there is widespread speculation that the chamber may be dissolved sometime this year for a snap election.

The DPJ is preparing to field 250 candidates for the Lower House race. But an exodus of junior lawmakers to contest local elections will cause problems for DPJ leaders, who will have to find replacements who can hang on to the party’s Diet seats.

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