• Jiji


Tetsuo Saito, deputy leader of Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, made an unexpected comment at a recent LDP gathering that took aback potential supporters.

“My blood is 95% LDP,” said Saito, 69, his expression revealing a strong sense of crisis over his uncertain prospects for success in Sunday’s election for the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Diet.

Saito is running in Hiroshima Prefecture’s No. 3 constituency, which was rocked by a major vote-buying scandal in the 2019 election for the House of Councillors, the upper chamber, involving former LDP lawmakers.

For many years the single-seat district had been represented by former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai of the LDP. But Kawai left the party in June 2020, and resigned as lawmaker in April 2021 after being accused of buying votes for his wife in the 2019 Upper House election. A guilty ruling for him was finalized this month.

After Kawai’s departure from the LDP, Komeito — a party known for its strict attitude toward money scandals involving politicians — decided to field Saito in the constituency. Previously, Saito had been elected from the Chugoku regional bloc of the proportional representation system, which includes Hiroshima.

The LDP’s Hiroshima prefectural chapter reacted angrily, as it had been looking to put up a candidate to retain the seat for the party. Even after the headquarters of the LDP and Komeito agreed to back Saito as a consensus candidate for the ruling coalition, the prefectural chapter was reluctant to fall into line. “If an opposition contender wins, the right to field a candidate will come back (to the LDP),” one official said.

The situation surrounding Saito was getting worse. In April, the LDP’s candidate lost in the Upper House rerun election for the Hiroshima prefectural constituency. The vote was held after the 2019 victory of Kawai’s wife, Anri, a former LDP member, was invalidated by the guilty ruling against her for vote-buying.

The atmosphere changed drastically, however, after Fumio Kishida, a lawmaker from Hiroshima, was elected LDP president in September and prime minister in early October.

Saito’s appointment as minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism in the Kishida Cabinet also helped turn things around for the Komeito veteran.

Takashi Nakamoto of the LDP, chairman of the Hiroshima Prefectural Assembly, who has strong influence in local politics, started rallying support for Saito. “We have no reason to allow the land minister of the Kishida government to lose (in the election),” Nakamoto said.

Municipality chiefs and prefectural assembly members of the LDP have thrown their support behind Saito in turn. And Kishida even visited Saito’s constituency to give him a boost with a stump speech.

As it would be difficult for Saito to achieve victory with only votes from Komeito supporters, the key to success for him is to enhance a sense of unity with the ruling coalition partner, the LDP.

Then came his “95% LDP blood” remark at the LDP meeting on Oct. 15, where he begged frantically for support with little regard for appearances.

Saito also recalled that his joining Soka Gakkai — the Buddhist lay organization that backs Komeito — when he was a high school student provoked a strong protest from his father, who was then an LDP member of a local village assembly.

Like other Komeito candidates in single-seat constituencies, Saito does not have the safety net of being on the party’s list of candidates under the proportional representation system as well. A defeat in the constituency means the loss of his seat in the Lower House.

“The ramifications of the scandal are still being felt,” a member of the Saito camp said. “We are facing an uphill battle. It will be too close to call.”

Six candidates are competing in the Hiroshima No. 3 constituency, which covers part of the city of Hiroshima.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has put up newcomer Mayumi Ryan, 58, following an agreement with the Japanese Communist Party to unify their candidates. Under the banner of clean politics, the CDP is aiming for back-to-back victories after the election of an opposition candidate in the Upper House rerun poll in Hiroshima Prefecture in April.

In a street speech in the city on Thursday, CDP leader Yukio Edano called for a change of government. “Even after a prime minister from Hiroshima took office, there is no soul-searching (in the LDP) over the scandal. Let’s change politics!”

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