• Kyodo

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Campaigning began Thursday for the Oct. 26 House of Councilors by-election in Saitama Prefecture, which is widely seen as a litmus test of voter sentiment for the House of Representatives general election expected next month.

Although there are three candidates, the by-election is considered as a faceoff between two of them, one backed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party and the other by the Democratic Party of Japan.

It is the first Diet election since Koizumi was re-elected as LDP chief and launched his new Cabinet last month.

Masakazu Sekiguchi, 50, a former member of the Saitama Prefectural Assembly, is running on an LDP ticket, while the DPJ is fielding Chiyako Shimada, 41, a dentist who used to be a TV anchorwoman. The third candidate is Sachiyo Abe, 55, a former Upper House member fielded by the Japanese Communist Party.

The Saitama poll is getting attention because its campaign opened just one day before Koizumi is expected to dissolve the Lower House for a general election, which will probably be held Nov. 9.

The by-election takes place just two days before campaigning for the Lower House general election is expected to open on Oct. 28.

Neither Sekiguchi nor Shimada has any experience in national politics, and therefore the ability of the parties to steer the candidates to victory will be tested.

The LDP’s partners in the ruling coalition — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — are also supporting Sekiguchi, who is also a dentist.

On the first day of campaigning, senior leaders of the LDP and DPJ took to the streets to ask for voter support.

“Reforms under the Koizumi administration have not made any progress,” DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada told Saitama residents. “We want you to make a right choice in this by-election.”

LDP policy chief Fukushiro Nukaga countered by saying, “The Koizumi Cabinet has steadily implemented reforms, but the DPJ is simply trying to curry favor with voters. The LDP is the only party that can be in charge of the government.”

The Saitama seat was vacated when Takujiro Hamada gave it up to run unsuccessfully for the Saitama gubernatorial election in August. Hamada, an independent linked with New Komeito, was defeated by former DPJ lawmaker Kiyoshi Ueda.

The Saitama by-election is seen as a test for the DPJ, which was bolstered by absorbing the Liberal Party in late September. The DPJ holds 67 seats in the 247-seat Upper House, while the LDP controls 113.

DPJ candidate Shimada hopes to tap into the local voter sentiment that gave Ueda an impressive victory in the August gubernatorial poll. The LDP’s Sekiguchi is trying to mobilize industry associations and other organized votes, while also counting on members of Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, which solidly backs New Komeito.

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