YAMAGATA (Kyodo) Speculation continues to mount that Prime Minister Taro Aso’s days are numbered, as his political foes step up their attacks following the recent resignation of one of his closest Cabinet allies, but signs of his administration’s decline were already evident weeks ago during an election in the Tohoku region.

In the January Yamagata gubernatorial election, Mieko Yoshimura, a 57-year-old newcomer backed by the Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties, defeated Hiroshi Saito, the 51-year-old incumbent supported by Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Both sides sent prominent lawmakers, including DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa and LDP acting Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara, to stump for their candidates, giving the local poll the air of a prelude to the national election that must be held by the fall.

The victory of the DPJ-backed candidate, who has no political experience, took local and national political circles by surprise because the agricultural prefecture is one of the LDP’s traditional strongholds, with LDP members occupying all three single-seat districts for the House of Representatives and accounting for more than 70 percent of the prefectural assembly.

Indeed, pre-election polls showed more than 60 percent of voters supported Saito’s policies.

“I believe Mr. Saito was on the right track for fiscal reconstruction,” said Masato Niizeki, 37, owner of an “izakaya” pub in the city of Yamagata.

Saito — a reform-minded former Bank of Japan official — said in an interview following his defeat that his first four years as governor had been “flawless” in terms of restoring fiscal health and building an open and transparent political system.

Observers also don’t regard Yoshimura’s victory as a result of high public expectations for her. She’s a judicial scrivener and housewife, and her platform failed to present a clear idea of what she will do for the prefecture’s 1.2 million residents.

Asked about her rival’s policies in an interview just days before her inauguration, she said: “I haven’t taken a close look at his policies. What’s important amid the spreading sense of stagnation is to keep working cheerfully.”

So even though voters didn’t know her policies, they still chose her.

“This means the DPJ’s popularity was that strong, giving her a critical boost,” pub owner Niizeki said.

Toshiko Harada, a 68-year-old housewife, agreed.

“I didn’t want to vote for Mr. Saito, as I saw him campaigning with LDP lawmakers,” Harada said, adding she simply didn’t want to support any LDP-backed candidate because of her doubts about Aso’s leadership.

“It’s not that the DPJ has done anything to ramp up voter support. The DPJ’s popularity is just a sign of voters’ despair with the LDP,” said Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

The LDP Diet members from Yamagata who backed Saito also appear to have learned firsthand that the wind is blowing against them on their home turf.

Toshiaki Endo, an LDP Lower House member and head of the party’s prefectural chapter, said in a recent interview that the party’s power base “has been weakening” in Yamagata and the gubernatorial race was an uphill battle for the LDP.

“The LDP is hopeless. Let the DPJ take the helm for a change,” he recalled one voter telling him.

“This seems to be a nationwide trend, and I sense that it is proceeding apace,” Endo said.

After the election, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, also a Lower House lawmaker from Yamagata, told local reporters that Aso’s slumping popularity rating is to blame for Saito’s loss.

Observers say the result also stemmed from a sense of public distrust in the LDP and the structural reforms spearheaded during the 2001-2006 stint of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“Because of hefty fiscal cuts under these relentless reforms, our community has become exhausted,” Endo said. “Mr. Saito then mounted a further effort for reforms, drawing fire from companies and organizations that suffered the resultant pains.”

Yasue Funayama, a DPJ House of Councilors member from Yamagata who supported Yoshimura, said, “The DPJ’s efforts to withdraw from the structural-reform track and enhance the social safety net gained voter understanding.”

At a time when Japan’s export-oriented economy is already sliding into a deep recession, Koizumi-style reforms are being blamed for having further widened the gap between rich and poor and between cities and rural areas.

“Although local and national elections are not the same, we believe the election result will give us impetus toward the next general election,” Funayama said.

Amid Aso’s verbal gaffes and policy flip-flops, it has already been widely predicted the LDP will lose the next general election to the DPJ, ending its almost unbroken postwar rule.

The recent resignation by Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, a close ally of Aso, following his widely ridiculed performance at a Group of Seven news conference in Rome, was a further blow to Aso and encouraged the DPJ to step up its attacks on the ruling party.

Anti-Aso moves are also gaining momentum within his own party, as Koizumi, who still has clout within the LDP, recently assailed the prime minister after he made a series of comments against postal privatization, Koizumi’s key structural reform.

Claiming his priority is to bail the economy out of the slump, Aso has kept saying he will not dissolve the Lower House until the fiscal 2009 budget is enacted. The Diet is still deliberating the measure.

But Sophia’s Miura predicted that Aso might be pressured to dissolve the Diet as early as this month, depending on how LDP lawmakers move in the weeks ahead.

In single-seat districts, moves by the Japanese Communist Party could also be a key factor in determining the LDP’s destiny, analysts say.

In the Yamagata election, the JCP did not file its own candidate for the first time in about 50 years.

Instead, it joined hands with the DPJ and other small opposition parties to support Yoshimura. As a result, Yoshimura gained an additional 30,000 votes, more than her overall winning margin of just 10,000.

“If that happens in the national election, that could determine our fate,” Endo said.

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