• Kyodo

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Kazumi Ota of the Democratic Party of Japan won Sunday’s by-election in Chiba Prefecture, overcoming the party’s e-mail fiasco in the Diet and giving a shot in the arm to the leadership of Ichiro Ozawa, its new president.

Ota, 26, a former member of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly, beat Ken Saito, 46, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former vice governor of Saitama Prefecture, to replace an LDP lawmaker forced to resign over a campaign scandal.

Also running in the Chiba No. 7 district were Kiyoko Tokumasu, 53, of the Japanese Communist Party and two other candidates.

The DPJ’s victory under Ozawa came after the party was hit by a scandal involving a fake e-mail message that it used to make accusations against a senior LDP legislator.

The race was seen as the first major challenge for Ozawa, and as a litmus test to see how voters are assessing the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi amid concerns over deteriorating bilateral ties with China and South Korea, and the widening gap between rich and poor.

Given the high stakes, both parties sent top officials out to stump for their candidates. Voter turnout was 49.63 percent, down 15.12 points from last September’s general election. With all ballots counted, Ota won by a slim 955-vote margin.

Ozawa assumed the DPJ presidency earlier this month to serve out the term of Seiji Maehara until September. Koizumi is expected to step down as LDP president, and subsequently prime minister, that same month.

With the result, the focus now shifts to how the outcome will influence the two parties’ leadership elections and the House of Councilors election next year.

Speaking at her campaign headquarters in Matsudo, Ota said that she “had no words” to describe her elation.

The DPJ had been in the depth of confusion, she said in referring to the e-mail scandal, “but things have gotten better under our new leader.”

“I want to convey the voices of my generation and women to the Diet,” she added.

At DPJ headquarters in Tokyo, Ozawa told a news conference, “We will make our utmost efforts to realize a change of government” to meet the expectations of those who voted for Ota.

DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said the outcome shows public anger over social disparities.

“This is the people’s message to the Koizumi administration,” he said.

LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe told a separate news conference he felt great responsibility for the defeat.

“The voters focused on the new DPJ leadership under Mr. Ozawa, rather than on individual candidates,” Takebe said. “We will maintain our reform drive without getting discouraged.”

Ota becomes the youngest member of the Diet together with Taizo Sugimura of the LDP, who won a Lower House seat in last September’s general election.

The previous holder of the Chiba No. 7 seat, Kazumi Matsumoto, 41, resigned Jan. 18.

The move followed speculation that he would leave the Diet under the guilty-by-association stipulation of the Public Office Election Law as three of his campaign operatives were found guilty of violating the law.

Although the resignation of the LDP member initially made it seem like an easy election for the DPJ, the tide quickly turned with the e-mail fiasco.

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