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HONJO, Akita Pref. — Gigantic pillars soar toward the sky in a mountainous area 7 km north of the city of Honjo in southern Akita Prefecture, symbolizing the power of Kanezo Muraoka.

They are the support pylons for an elevated expressway under construction and slated to be completed by 2007.

Since 1997, Muraoka Construction Inc., a local builder, has won contracts every year with Japan Highway Public Corp. to build part of the expressway. The contracts have thus far amounted to 2.6 billion yen.

Muraoka, 72, a Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight, hopes to win the Akita No. 3 constituency seat in the Nov. 9 Lower House election, and thus a ninth Diet term.

He has a direct interest in seeing that the expressway is completed: He owns a 36.2-percent stake in Muraoka Construction and received a shareholder dividend worth 5.4 million yen last year, according to the company, which was founded by his grandfather in 1914.

Muraoka’s older brother is now president of the firm, while his wife sits on its board of directors. Kanezo Muraoka himself was its president from 1959 to 1964, before becoming a lawmaker.

Muraoka, a champion of road construction, is chairman of a group of more than 330 Diet members promoting expressway network construction. The group makes up roughly three-quarters of all lawmakers in the LDP-led ruling alliance.

Muraoka has mobilized construction workers in his campaigns since he was first elected to the Diet in 1972, local industry sources said.

“We all support Mr. Muraoka for (the Nov. 9) election,” said an employee at a major local construction company, who declined to be named. “Not all local firms have maintained good relations with him. But as far as elections are concerned, we have no choice but to support him.”

Since the single-seat constituency system was introduced in the 1996 election, Muraoka, the sole lawmaker elected from the Akita No. 3 district, has exerted great influence over the local construction industry.

As a politician, his deep association with the construction business is no aberration. The essence of pork-barrel politics, many rural LDP prefectural assembly members run construction firms, relying on public works orders from local governments.

Many local residents defend Muraoka’s crusade for road construction.

For example, National Route No. 7, which runs along the Sea of Japan coast, is critically important for local residents in the absence of any bypass. But they complain that the road is sometimes closed due to accidents.

The expressway under construction is designed to run parallel to Route No. 7.

“Yes, it would be convenient to have another road,” said Ichiro Saito, a local taxi driver, noting most rural roads in the prefecture run through the mountains, are very narrow and often closed due to heavy snowfall.

An aide to Muraoka at his campaign headquarters said: “(People in urban areas) should live at least half a year here. Otherwise, I don’t want (them) to discuss issues related to roads.”

Once key Koizumi critic

Muraoka had been one of the most vocal critics of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s austere administrative reforms, particularly his advocacy of drastic cuts in the road construction budget.

Koizumi has pushed for the privatization of debt-ridden semigovernmental expressway corporations, which would greatly scale down construction of expressway networks, particularly rural ones with low traffic demand.

Koizumi has also called for a halt to the longtime practice of reserving huge tax revenues only for road construction. In fact, he managed to cut the road construction budget — once a “sanctuary” protected by powerful LDP lawmakers — by 224.7 billion yen to 3.31 trillion yen for fiscal 2002.

But then Muraoka suddenly voiced support for Koizumi’s bid to be re-elected LDP president, just before the campaign for the Sept. 20 LDP poll kicked off. Muraoka has not clearly explained why.

But some political insiders both in Tokyo’s Nagata-cho and in Muraoka’s Akita constituency say they know why he threw his support behind Koizumi: he is facing a tough battle to beat a young candidate who is pitching to voters a fresh image not linked to the construction industry.

“You can’t think of any other reason, can you?” asked one secretary to Nobuhide Minorikawa, 39, who is considered Muraoka’s main rival in the upcoming election.

“Muraoka already has solid support from the construction industry,” the secretary said. “I think he is now trying to reach out to our supporters.”

The Muraoka-Minorikawa rivalry is not new.

When the multiseat electoral district system was replaced by a single-seat system in the 1996 election, Muraoka and Minorikawa’s late father, Hidefumi, agreed that one of them should run as the LDP candidate in the Akita No. 3 constituency in turn, while the other should run on the party’s regional proportional representation ticket.

They agreed that the one who is running in the Akita constituency can count on the other’s support organization as well. This year, it was Muraoka’s turn on the proportional representation list and Hidefumi Minorikawa’s to run from the Akita district.

But after Hidefumi Minorikawa died in April, Muraoka declared himself the LDP candidate in the Akita constituency. The late lawmaker’s son, a graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University of New York, then declared his candidacy as an independent, potentially splitting local conservative voters.

The elder Minorikawa claimed strong popularity with farmers — another traditional LDP support base — in mountainous areas of the constituency, while Muraoka relies on votes linked to the construction industry.

Muraoka won 170,000 votes in the previous election, in 2000, with at least 60,000 of them believed to have come from the elder Minorikawa’s supporters.

Support was qualified

While a majority of the LDP’s Diet members voted to re-elect Koizumi as party chief, this does not mean they support his efforts to cut road construction spending and his goal of privatizing the expressway operators.

Many continue to advocate the construction of more expressways in their constituencies, seeking to bring lucrative contracts to local construction firms that have suffered from reduced public works orders in recent years.

“For the sake of Akita’s development, I will strongly push for construction of expressways,” Muraoka said in his policy leaflet for the Nov. 9 election.

As far as the project in his constituency is concerned, Muraoka has little to worry about, despite Koizumi’s expressway privatization drive.

The government has already decided to build the expressway section in southern Akita under a scheme whereby taxpayers’ money, instead of Japan Highway toll revenues, will be used to cover the cost.

The expressway under construction in Akita is part of a bigger project — the Nihon Kai Tohoku Automobile Road — which is estimated to cost 833 billion yen.

If all of the road is completed, it will stretch 157 km, mostly along the Sea of Japan coast from Niigata to Kosaka in northern Akita Prefecture.

But completion of the entire project may be taken up in the ongoing debate on privatizing the expressway firms.

The government has drawn up plans to build a 9,342 km expressway network nationwide, including the Nihon Kai Tohoku Automobile Road. With 7,268 km of the network having already been completed, the fate of the remaining 2,074 km is now up in the air.

A final report compiled in December by a government advisory panel on privatizing Japan Highway recommends that after its privatization, the new entity should put priority on repaying its snowballing debts, not building unprofitable rural highways.

Many LDP lawmakers oppose the panel’s scheme, saying the government should be able to use toll revenues of the privatized body to keep building expressways as planned.

“The construction of the expressway is the ardent wish of our hometown. I pledge to build it, and bet my political career on it,” Wataru Takeshita, younger brother of the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and an LDP candidate in the Shimane No. 2 constituency, reportedly said during his first campaign speech on Oct. 28.

Like Muraoka, Upper House members of an intraparty faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto all supported Koizumi’s re-election, apparently to take advantage of the prime minister’s popularity as the party prepares for the Upper House election next summer.

But they launched an association of Upper House members to promote expressway construction on Oct. 10, the day the Lower House was dissolved for the election.

The move is widely seen as an effort to woo support in the construction industry and help the party’s Lower House election campaigns.

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