ANNAKA, GUNMA PREF. – Disgraced former trade and industry minister Yuko Obuchi bowed deeply and apologized to voters while campaigning in her Gunma Prefecture constituency. If re-elected, it would be her sixth term in the Lower House.
“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for causing concern and trouble because of political groups tied to me,” a tearful Obuchi told supporters at a shrine in Shibukawa, part of the Gunma No. 5 constituency, on Dec. 2.
The 41-year-old has limited campaigning activities to her constituency as she tries to regain voter trust after a political funds scandal forced her to resign as chief of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in October. This contrasts with her past campaigns, in which she traveled across Japan stumping for fellow candidates.
In a blog post on Dec. 2, Obuchi wrote that she would travel around her constituency during the official 12-day campaign period to meet as many people as possible.
Once touted as a future candidate for prime minister, Obuchi resigned as METI chief over accounting irregularities tied to her fundraising groups about a month after taking the high-profile post during a Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“For me, too, this is the only way to go,” Obuchi told her supporters at the campaign launch in Shibukawa, borrowing a phrase from the LDP’s campaign slogan: that Abe’s economic policies are the only way to revitalize the nation’s struggling economy.
“I’m determined to do everything anew, returning to the starting line once again,” she said.
The LDP is traditionally strong in Gunma, about 100 km northwest of Tokyo. The prefecture has produced four prime ministers to date, including Takeo Fukuda, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Keizo Obuchi, Yuko Obuchi’s late father.
Inheriting the constituency from her father, who died in 2000 after a stroke, Obuchi has scored resounding victories by a margin of around 100,000 votes over the runners-up in the past five elections.
Two other candidates in the Gunma No. 5 constituency, which covers the western part of the prefecture, have criticized the former trade minister during the election campaign, as it comes at a time when prosecutors are still investigating Obuchi’s funds scandal.
“I cannot overlook one thing — the issue of politics and money,” Social Democratic Party candidate Hitoshi Kobayashi, 63, said in a campaign speech in Shibukawa on Dec. 2. “Aspiring politicians must be clean.”
Japanese Communist Party candidate Hiroshi Itoi called on Obuchi to explain what lay behind the scandal that brought her down and what she is doing to make amends.
“If she says she would start from scratch, she should explain what she has done thus far,” the 46-year-old said in a speech in Shibukawa on Dec 2. Itoi also criticized the LDP, which endorsed Obuchi as its official candidate.
In a speech in the Agatsuma district on Dec. 3, Obuchi promised she would account for what happened.
“I can’t give you a full account at the moment but I’ll explain in detail after I look into it, in order to win back your trust,” she told supporters.
Obuchi has maintained that probes by prosecutors and third-party experts have drawn no conclusions.
Voters in the Gunma No. 5 constituency meanwhile expressed unease with Obuchi’s seeking their approval while the scandal remains fresh.
“I feel insulted by the fact that she is running for the election as usual despite the scandal,” said an employed man in his 40s from Tomioka in the constituency.
The individual, who declined to be named, told The Japan Times that he voted for Obuchi in the past five elections but might boycott the poll this time in frustration.
Winning re-election will not make the scandal go away, he added.
A 57-year-old self-employed woman from Annaka, also in the constituency, said Obuchi should wait for the investigation to close before seeking re-election.
“She said she would look into the issue, but no findings have come to light yet,” the woman said. “She has taken it for granted that she will run in the election with the official approval of the LDP. This I don’t understand.”
Recent surveys by media outlets showed Obuchi has a lead over her two rivals.
A representative of SDP candidate Kobayashi’s camp predicted Obuchi’s funding scandal will have little impact on the outcome.
“In the first place, conservatives have been strong in this constituency. It doesn’t seem to have led to any change to the political landscape,” he said.
“Those who (support Obuchi) are like believers, and she is like an idol.”
A 79-year-old woman from Annaka who works from home noted that Obuchi seems to be on course to win in part because no major opposition party has fielded a candidate to oppose her, such as the Democratic Party of Japan.
The general election in 2012 saw a similar cast of candidates, in which Obuchi won with 77.3 percent of the vote, garnering some 134,700 ballots, followed by Kobayashi with about 22,600 votes, and Itoi with 17,000.
Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai said if voters elect Obuchi they will expect her to take responsibility for the scandal, even if she is not legally liable for the actions of others.
“It’s difficult to question Obuchi’s legal responsibility, since she does not head the two support bodies in question,” Iwai said.
But, he warned, Obuchi’s re-election might leave the issue unresolved.
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