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Campaigning kicked off in Miyagi and Fukuoka prefectures Tuesday for two House of Representatives by-elections expected to be pivotal in deciding the fate of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization drive.

The two polls, which will be held April 24, will also be a litmus test for July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

The by-elections involve seats for the Fukuoka No. 2 and Miyagi No. 2 constituencies, which were vacated by members of the Democratic Party of Japan.

The opposition camp is expected to put up a stiff defense to keep the two seats. If its candidates are defeated, DPJ leader Katsuya Okada’s position will be called into question because the party is aiming to use the by-elections as a stepping stone to challenge the Liberal Democratic Party.

“Both by-elections are important, particularly the one in Fukuoka, where Taku Yamasaki, a sworn friend of the prime minister (Junichiro Koizumi), is standing as a candidate,” Okada told reporters last week.

Yamasaki, a former secretary general of the LDP, is desperately trying to make a comeback to the Diet after losing in the November 2003 election, party due to fallout from an extramarital affair, to Junichiro Koga, who later quit the DPJ and the Diet because he lied about his educational background.

“Defeating Yamasaki will mean that Koizumi does not have the confidence of the people. We’d like to campaign by considering the by-elections to be an opportunity for the people to make a choice on which party should hold power,” Okada said.

Koizumi said the polls will “have no effect” on his administration or the highly contested postal privatization bills, which he hopes to submit to the Diet by the end of the month and get them passed by June 19, when the Diet closes. But he is facing tenacious resistance from the LDP, which he also heads.

“The LDP and (coalition partner) New Komeito have already secured a stable majority. These (by-elections) are not a general election,” Koizumi told reporters Tuesday.

Many observers believe Koizumi, who relies on his popularity with the public to stay in office, would lose authority over the LDP and the postal privatization drive if LDP-backed candidates lose both races.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party are taking a stand against the two-way rivalry between the ruling bloc and the DPJ, as well as their plan to amend the pacifist Constitution and raise taxes to finance the ailing social security system.

The Fukuoka seat became vacant in September after Koga quit. He was expelled from the DPJ earlier last year for falsifying his academic career during his run for the Diet in 2003.

The Miyagi seat was vacated in December by Sayuri Kamata, who resigned after her campaign staff were found to have violated election rules.

Senior members of both the ruling and opposition camps converged on Fukuoka Tuesday morning to stump for their candidates.

In Fukuoka, the DPJ’s candidate is 37-year-old Masanori Hirata, a newcomer with a background in investment counseling. Hirata, who is also backed by the SDP, is running against Yamasaki, 68, and Hirotoshi Yamada, 43, of the JCP’s Fukuoka chapter, and three independents — Kenshiro Nishimura, 45, Yutaka Fujimoto, 54, and Shinichi Hamatake, 39, a former member of the Chikushino Municipal Assembly.

In Miyagi, the DPJ has fielded Yukiko Monma, a 30-year-old postgraduate student at Tohoku University, against Kenya Akiba, 42, a former prefectural assembly member from the LDP. Another former LDP prefectural assembly member, Fumihiro Kikuchi, 45, is running as an independent. The JCP will be fielding prefectural chapter member Taira Goto, 54, while the SDP has put forward its prefectural vice secretary general, Eiji Tayama, 45.

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