After 12 years as Tokyo's governor, Shunichi Suzuki is as much a part of this teeming metropolis of 12 million as towering land prices and neon-lit Ginza streets. Until a few months ago, however, he was expected to quietly fade from the scene, the victim of age and widespread criticism of his "tax palace," the recently completed $1.1-billion City Hall built in the shape of an oversized Notre Dame cathedral.
But now, in one of the many paradoxes of Japanese politics, Suzuki--an 80-year-old who recently touched his toes in public to prove his youth--is expected to win a fourth term in a landslide victory as a rebel against the highhanded leaders of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Such an outcome would deeply embarrass the party. It also could pull down Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and bring back the "Gang of Five," the party leaders unseated two years ago in the Recruit bribery scandals, some analysts say.
The events began last fall when Ichiro Ozawa, the young Liberal Democratic Party secretary general who is known to order Kaifu about, embarrassed himself by failing to win Parliament support for sending Japanese Self-Defense Force personnel to the Gulf.
Then, when it came time to scrape up $9 billion for the Gulf War, Ozawa allied his party with the opposition Komeito party to pass a tax bill to cover Japan's war contribution. Komeito was happy to assist. Its wealthy Buddhist affiliate, the Sokagakkai, is under a tax investigation and many observers believe the alliance with the Liberal Democrats could help with damage control.
But as part of the pact, Ozawa also withdrew the Liberal Democrats' support for Suzuki and threw their backing to Hisanori Isomura, a former public television announcer put forward by Komeito.
Suzuki, however, then refused to quit his race and his local party backed him. Many Liberal Democratic leaders refused to campaign against him, and he, meantime, launched a campaign calling on Tokyo residents to rise up against the arbitrary power of the national party.
His strategy worked. Recent polls show Suzuki leading 40% to 20%. He is expected to stay ahead until the April 7 election, despite his opponent's promise to give Tokyo residents a $7.5-billion tax break worth nearly $1,000 per resident.
"I don't like the way the (national party) is putting pressure on the city," said housewife Keiko Kai, 40, who stopped to listen to Suzuki speak from atop a sound truck in the drizzling rain. "It really makes me angry. Whose election do they think it is, anyway?"
At this campaign stop in front of a Tokyo department store, it was also clear that Suzuki's age, once a liability, has become an asset. When he said that doctors told him he has the body of a 60-year-old, the elderly ladies making up most of his audience of 400 applauded and waved.
The split by Tokyo's Liberal Democrats with their national party has exposed some of Japanese politics' seamier aspects. It is normal, for example, for Japanese firms to tell employees how to vote and they generally comply. But companies reportedly have less control over how employees' wives and children vote.
The undemocratic corporate practices have become a subject of public discussion this spring as companies, for the first time, have to choose between two Liberal Democrat candidates.
Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a Keio University professor, says big companies have more to gain from ties with the national party and are likely to support Isomura with money and votes. But small companies do more business with the Tokyo government and are likely to support Suzuki. And since small companies have more employees, the corporate elections system, or kigyo senkyo , will favor Suzuki.
The big loser from a Suzuki landslide victory will be Ozawa, who may be pressured to resign for picking the wrong side, observers said. Kaifu, with little support of his own, then would be forced to resign, too. Ozawa still may be saved, though, by the central role he is playing in negotiations over Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's coming Tokyo visit.
But even if Ozawa survives this crisis, pundits say Kaifu, Ozawa and Ozawa's key backer, party strongman Shin Kanemaru, will all be out of power by fall.
Meantime, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and other party elders, forced to resign two years ago for illegally accepting money from the Recruit company, are maneuvering to get themselves back into key positions. Takeshita recently dined for three hours with rival Kiichi Miyazawa, another Recruit victim. Masayuki Fukuoka, a television analyst, says Takeshita seems to be laying the groundwork for Miyazawa to be the next prime minister.