GIFU — A showdown between two female candidates has all eyes fixed on this sleepy conservative city in the Chubu region.

In the Sept. 11 House of Representatives election, former posts minister Seiko Noda, 45, is vying with economist Yukari Sato, 44, a carpetbagger “madonna” recruited by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to compete for the Gifu No. 1 constituency, which covers the city.

Noda has been elected four straight times — the last three on the LDP ticket. But this time, she has to run as an independent because she was among the party members who voted against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization bills.

In the city, many voters have shown deep interest in the Noda-Sato faceoff.

“I will cast a ballot for the first time because all eyes are on this election,” a 23-year-old office worker said in the Yanagase downtown district, without giving his name.

The man said he will vote for Sato, chief economist at Credit Suisse First Boston (Japan) Ltd., because of her expertise in economics.

“You see all those shuttered stores around here. Noda hasn’t done anything for us,” he said.

Another office worker, 27, said she will vote for Noda because she feels a sense of closeness to her.

“I admire her activities as a woman,” the office worker said, citing Noda’s books on infertility treatment and the dwindling birthrate.

“I don’t know the other candidate (Sato) well. She just came out of nowhere and is a stranger to Gifu.”

Noda appears to be popular with a wide range of voters, particularly women, while Sato has been well-received by men and those looking for someone to bring a breath of fresh air to the city, whose economy has suffered for years.

The Democratic Party of Japan is fielding ex-bank clerk Masanao Shibahashi, 26, while the Japanese Communist Party is fielding Satoru Ogawa, 52, a member of its prefectural committee.

“Opposition candidates are prone to be left out in a race like this, so we’re trying to squeeze (Shibahashi) in and make it a three-way contest,” said Kan Takahashi, a DPJ member of the Gifu Municipal Assembly who is heading Shibahashi’s campaign office.

The opposition forces say the contest between the two women represents nothing but internal strife in the LDP.

But it also poses a dilemma for the LDP and New Komeito, its junior partner in the ruling bloc.

New Komeito is believed to have the power of drawing 27,000 votes thanks to its main support group, Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization. In the last general election, in November 2003, the party threw its weight behind Noda, and in return, its candidates got proportional representation votes. This time it is fielding five proportional representation candidates.

Although Noda couldn’t get the LDP’s official endorsement, the prefectural chapter endorsed her anyway to protest the way the party snubbed its members who voted against the postal privatization bills.

But the chapter’s solidarity is crumbling. Four members now support Sato.

“I hear the party headquarters offered a carrot” to them to undermine the solidarity of the local chapter, said an LDP member of the Gifu Prefectural Assembly who supports Noda, requesting anonymity.

New Komeito and Soka Gakkai are thus expected to hold the key to the Gifu race again.

In the 2003 general election, Noda, running on the LDP ticket, garnered 92,717 votes with help from New Komeito, beating the DPJ candidate by 21,068 votes.

This time, however, New Komeito has endorsed neither Noda nor Sato.

“I now realize how hard it is to run as an independent,” Noda said at a recent gathering of supporters. “It is as if the election system is telling independent candidates to die,” she said tearfully.

Independents are given no air time for campaigning, and they cannot put up as many posters or distribute as many handbills and postcards as party-endorsed candidates.

Sato’s camp says she is rapidly closing in on Noda thanks to all-out support from LDP headquarters, which has sent the prime minister and other key figures to the city this week to stump for her.

“I completely agree with postal privatization, which will open a way for structural reform to achieve a small government,” Sato told a crowd gathered outside her office last weekend. “I’d like to join hands with all of you in formulating a policy to change Gifu and restore the economy without nipping reforms in the bud.”

Iwao Matsuda, an LDP Upper House member from Gifu Prefecture in charge of Sato’s headquarters, said she got off to a late start because she was fielded in late August. She also faced other snags: Gifu Mayor Shigemitsu Hosoe would not shake hands with her when she called on him, reportedly because he didn’t want to show any political bias. Allegations also surfaced that Sato had had affairs with two married men.

“But all those things have backfired on Noda’s camp, and (Sato’s popularity) is continuing to rise,” Matsuda said, indicating people may be sympathetic toward the LDP candidate and suspect Noda’s camp of playing dirty politics.

Tamiko Kasahara, an LDP member of the prefectural assembly who backs Sato, said she cannot trust Noda because her stance on postal privatization is inconsistent and she should have left the LDP when she rebelled.

Political analyst Kichiya Kobayashi noted that Noda has bedrock support from a group of postmasters from the “tokutei” (special) post offices, which account for 5,000 votes in the city alone.

“The prefectural chapter boasts one of the largest general memberships and has also worked in close cooperation with the postmasters,” Kobayashi said. “Therefore, the chapter must have thought it’d be better to support Noda even against the will of party headquarters.”

With Koizumi’s “assassins” in hot pursuit, Noda’s camp feels like its back is against the wall.

The race between Noda and Sato is “utterly close,” said Kenzo Yasuda, an LDP member of the prefectural assembly who heads Noda’s election headquarters.

“That person (Sato) has effectively won a seat already” because she is at the top of the LDP’s list for the Tokai proportional representation bloc, he said. “But it’s no laughing matter for Noda if she fails to win enough votes” to take the single-seat district.

To secure victory, Noda and Sato are said to be desperate for support from New Komeito and Soka Gakkai.

Masaki Iwahana, secretary general of New Komeito’s prefectural head office, admitted both camps are seeking electoral support.

“We’re troubled,” he said. “We’d like to support Noda, but we cannot because she voted against the postal privatization bills.”

Although New Komeito’s local office may have to support Sato, that too, will be difficult because she has no support groups that can provide electoral backing in the proportional representation bloc as barter, Iwahana said.

In the end, he noted, the party may have to leave it up to individual members to decide who they vote for.

“It will all be a matter of what (the candidates) can give and what we can take (in bringing about electoral support).”

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