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Koichi Kato, a former Liberal Democratic Party secretary general and one-time close ally of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who gave up his Diet seat amid a financial scandal last year, achieved a comeback in Sunday’s election.

Kato, 64, secured a seat in the House of Representatives as an independent from Yamagata Prefecture’s No. 3 district.

A one-time prime ministerial hopeful, Kato resigned from the governing LDP in March 2002 and quit the Diet the following month to take responsibility for his former top aide’s 172 million yen tax evasion and other allegations involving his political funds.

“The voters’ trust was damaged (by the scandal), but today’s voting shows a recovery in confidence,” Kato said on a television broadcast. “I am really happy.”

Analysts believe his efforts to apologize for the scandal at some 700 local gatherings since his resignation were enough to regain voters’ support. Kato is widely expected to rejoin the LDP.

The diplomat-turned-politician defeated Jun Saito, 34, of the Democratic Party of Japan, and Masayuki Sato, 31, of the Japanese Communist Party.

In his campaign, Kato said he wanted to “start from scratch” and “become a lawmaker who can articulate policy-oriented opinions.”

He criticized suggestions by politicians in Tokyo that highway construction should be curbed, saying regional areas such as his district need new highways.

“I think that, surprisingly, voters are not interested in political parties,” Kato said. “Instead, they are concerned about what will happen to pensions and how to improve employment, and they will vote for the politician who presents the issues accordingly . . . the public is no longer satisfied simply by (party) slogans.”

In the past, Kato filled several important posts, including those of chief Cabinet secretary and Defense Agency chief.

Meanwhile, Kenshiro Matsunami, seeking re-election on the New Conservative Party ticket, lost his seat in the Osaka No. 19 single-seat constituency.

Matsunami, 56, attracted criticism in the wake of revelations that he had a mob-linked supporter pay the salaries of his secretaries. Matsunami had admitted that an Osaka-based construction firm paid 2.75 million yen as part of his secretaries’ salaries between March 1997 and February 1998. He claimed he put an end to the practice after finding out the firm’s chairman belonged to a criminal organization.

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