The narrow victory of a Democratic Party of Japan candidate in Sunday’s by-election in Chiba Prefecture has given a boost to the main opposition force’s new president, Ichiro Ozawa, virtually assuring his re-election in the DPJ’s presidential poll in September, political pundits say.
On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Party candidate’s defeat is seen as another sign that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is losing his touch, which may affect the LDP’s choice of a successor the same month.
The by-election was seen as the first major test for Ozawa, who assumed the DPJ’s top post earlier this month.
Fukashi Horie, president of Shobi University, called the outcome “the Ozawa effect.”
“Dissatisfaction (with the opposition) was increasing after the DPJ lost miserably last year (in the general election),” Horie said. “But with the appearance of the new president, Ozawa, and the strong unity that he has shown with executives (Naoto) Kan and (Yukio) Hatoyama, expectations grew.”
The by-election follows the resignation of a LDP lawmaker over a campaign finance scandal.
Initially, the LDP seemed not to be hurt by the scandal. The DPJ had been reeling over a fiasco involving a fake e-mail message that it used to try to discredit LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe.
Horie said the election appeared to be a no-win proposition for the DPJ at first, “but under Ozawa’s new leadership, the party came back to life and gained a dramatic victory.”
Amid concern over issues that include a perceived widening gap between the rich and poor, the DPJ’s 26-year-old Kazumi Ota, a former member of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly, received 87,046 votes, compared with 86,091 votes for LDP candidate Ken Saito, the 46-year-old former vice governor of Saitama Prefecture. Voter turnout was 49.63 percent.
Ever since Ozawa emerged as the leading candidate for the DPJ presidential election, he has stressed his own need to change. Political analysts also point to some unusual steps by Ozawa in support of Ota, going so far as to ride around her constituency on a bicycle to drum up support.
“This is a state election. In other words, it is a reflection of the people’s opinion,” Ozawa told reporters last week. “I believe that gaining public support in this election will deeply influence the regeneration of the DPJ, as well as our reputation. In the long run, it will also affect future elections and the state of politics.”
Last week, DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama also stressed to reporters that the Chiba by-election holds the key to a future change of government.
“The DPJ, following Ozawa, has been stressing that (it) will stop the tears that have fallen from the eyes of the public because of Koizumi’s reform,” Hatoyama said. “This (by-election) is one step forward to realizing change in political power for a better future.”
Shobi University’s Horie also pointed to discontent over Koizumi’s policies as a reason for the opposition win.
“Koizumi took away the safety net of the seniority-based wage system and lifetime employment system,” Horie said. “People believe that (Koizumi’s) reform is the cause of the widening gap between the rich and the poor.”
On Monday, LDP Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe expressed disappointment over the loss.
“True, this government-level by-election was important, but it is completely different from the general election — only worth one-three-hundredth (of the earlier vote),” Abe told reporters, referring to the total number of Lower House seats. “It is my understanding that the public wishes to pursue reforms. We are heading in the right direction and we must continue to promote reform.”
But political analysts said the election may have a deeper impact on the ruling party.
Fearing that a re-energized DPJ under Ozawa could hurt the LDP candidate’s chances, the LDP sent many high-profile lawmakers, including Koizumi, Abe and some first-year Lower House members, to Chiba to support Saito.
But in the end it wasn’t enough. Now the power struggle within the LDP is likely to intensify, the analysts said.
“Those in support of Koizumi and his reforms have fallen into shock over how Ozawa just came and swept their efforts away, while anti-Koizumi members will use (the defeat) to work against Koizumi,” Horie said.
A number of LDP lawmakers have already begun talk of a crisis.
“We need to have a good candidate to take over the LDP leadership. But the new LDP leader must join hands with the public,” Takebe told reporters Monday. “The LDP president alone cannot improve Japanese politics.”