Ex-premier faces tough reelection battle in Japan

Veteran voters here have rarely witnessed a gloves-off election battle -- or political campaigning of any kind, for that matter.

In this regional transportation hub of 350,000 residents, confident incumbents with the nation's ruling Liberal Democratic Party had only to list their names on the ballot to virtually guarantee a landslide victory.

But all that has changed in this city 90 minutes north of Tokyo, the home district of four previous prime ministers.

This year, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda faces the political battle of his life to win reelection to the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament. His biggest hurdle does not appear to be his opponent, a former television reporter and political novice, but voter discontent.

"The political winds are blowing against us," acknowledged Tatsuo Fukuda, the candidate's son. "This is my father's most difficult election in the last 20 years."

As the Sunday election approaches, support for the Liberal Democrats has plunged to unparalleled levels nationwide, prompting what many predict will be a historic shift of power.

After 54 years of nearly uninterrupted rule, the party faces widespread unrest, if not a downright revolt, among voters who say they want change at any price.

Prime Minister Taro Aso, known more for his bumbling use of language than for his leadership, has seen his approval rating dip below 20%. Many voters view the Liberal Democrats as bureaucrats who remain out of touch with a changing Japan.

Riddled with scandal and mismanagement, voters say, the party has provided few answers to the sagging economy. Japan's public debt is double its gross domestic product, one of the highest such percentages among developed nations, economists say.

"The Japanese are ready to give the LDP a well-deserved sayonara," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan. "Everyone thinks they are dead-enders with no fresh ideas and no creative policies.

"The misery index is soaring, unemployment and suicides are up, wages and bonuses are down, and everyone is feeling insecure about their jobs and futures."

The situation has provided a rare opportunity for the Liberal Democrats' main opponent, the Democratic Party of Japan, led by Yukio Hatoyama, the Stanford-educated millionaire grandson of a former Liberal Democrat prime minister.

Hatoyama has promised to cut wasteful spending and improve lives in the world's second-largest economy. His party is gaining ground not only in large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, but also in rural areas, the Liberal Democrats' traditional power base.

Some experts say the Democratic Party might win more than 300 seats in the Diet's 480-member lower house.

Experts agree that if the Democratic Party is elected, the first few months will be critical.

"First impressions matter a great deal in politics," Kingston said.

Naoto Nonaka, a political scientist at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said he believes the Democratic Party is ready to lead, and downplayed speculation that party officials might seek a foreign policy that is more independent from Washington.

"The alliance between the U.S. and Japan is too critical for the security arrangement of both nations," he said. "It will not change."

Voters in Takasaki appear antsy.

"I hope things will change," said Isao Tsukagoshi, 37, a high school history teacher. "America just went through its own change electing Barack Obama. Now that idea has come to Japan."

Taxi driver Kazuo Goto said this year marks the first time he's seen a politician soliciting votes. "This election," he said, "is going to be a battle."

That means trouble for Yasuo Fukuda.

The Fukuda family is one of Japan's political dynasties: Both Yasuo and his father, Takeo, have served as prime minister. Yasuo was voted into the job two years ago by the lower house of the Diet.

A year ago, however, he unexpectedly quit, blaming an obstructionist Democratic Party for his departure. And now, if there is any time that a political nobody could defeat a former prime minister for his Diet seat, this is it.

"Voters see the LDP candidates as too old, too bureaucratic," acknowledged Tatsuo Fukuda, the candidate's son. "People want to punish the LDP by voting for the other party. It seems they don't really know what they want, other than change."

Gone are the days when a few hours of campaigning could sweep Yasuo Fukuda to victory. This year, he is frequently out on the stump, attending festivals and company meetings.

"We're struggling not against our opponent but the political winds," said his son.

As he spoke, a car passed outside with a woman using a megaphone extolling the attributes of Democratic Party candidate Yukiko Miyake. Tatsuo Fukuda's nose wrinkled, betraying a sense of competition.

Across town, on the second floor of a converted trailer, the mood at Miyake's campaign headquarters was buoyant.

Despite her lack of experience, the former TV reporter who covered economics likes her chances.

"A new generation is coming to power in Japan," she said. "I'm 44, my opponent is 73. If he's elected, he will turn 77 in office.

"He's always been so comfortable," she said. "This time, he's out there."

Miyake sports a turquoise banner with Japanese characters. It plays on the Japanese meaning of her given name. "It means 'snow child," she said. "My slogan is that my devotion will melt snow."



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