Friday, 16 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 3): Learning every day...striving every day...cycling every day...

Kentaro Hibi (on the right of the picture) certainly gets full marks for effort. At 26, he is the youngest candidate up for election to the City Council in the area, and is determined to prove it with manic cycling, leafleting--each flyer plastered with the slogan (whipping out his slogan "learning every day, striving every day"--and overt displays of 'wakai chikara'-- the power of youth.

7.40am. Kamiyashiro Station, Meito Ward. Mornings are not my forte and I'm late for the planned 7.30 session of station-side leafleteering. I burst from the ticket-barriers in a flustered rush and search for any signs of Hibi, but I needn't have worried. His voice carries across from the far side of the station--one perky good-morning "ohayo gozaimasu" after another--and I find him easily. I could have stayed in bed; he is a one-man pamphleting machine.

Kentaro Hibi is always clean-shaven, energetic and scarily full of life. But what else would you expect from a young politician-in-the-making? Mornings--every day, early--are spent delivering news to his potential constituents outside station entrances, while evenings find him cycling through the streets cementing the personal relationships that are so essential in Japan's Local Election campaigns (see previous post here). Keen to display youth as an energetic plus, rather than an inexperienced minus, Hibi is attempting to woo the electorate with speedy pedalling and cheerful greetings, and has the backing of local Dietman, Motohisa Furukawa (centre of the picture), to supplement it.

Yet, are buckets-full of 'youth' enough? As the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) found to their peril, the public were not moved by the promise of sprightly green leaders; the "power of youth" was not quite enough to cut the cake.

Although there are five places available and only six candidates--by no means bad odds--many are asking what exactly a vote for Hibi would be for.

The current political set-up in Meito Ward followed a by-election after the resignation of a previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Councillor on corruption charges. That election allowed Masayuki Chikazawa (on the left of the picture) to win his first term as a City Councillor. Only 36, Chikazawa is young, capable, running on a DPJ ticket, and, most importantly, tried. In other words, a Hibi and more. Chikazawa even has the backing of the current popular Member of the House of Representatives, Motohisa Furukawa, so it is doubtful whether Hibi's own links to Furukawa will prove to be a winning element in his election campaign.

The decision to put up another DPJ-linked candidate came after Chikazawa's solid victory in local by-elections. But, this too may be a miscalculation. Although Chikazawa romped home with overwhelming support, his adversaries were from the more ideological (or religious) political parties--the Communist Party (JCP), Komeito and Social Democratic Party (SDP)--which do not tend to attract moderate voters. With a middle-aged, inoffensive LDP candidate standing in the current election, the two DPJ candidates may not only find their own supporters split, but also a large slice gobbled up by the moderate LDP man.

However, as mentioned in a previous article, political parties, at least outside the more ideologically-driven in the line-up, make little difference to voter choice when compared to individual ties and personalities. The ballot paper, after all, does not mention party affiliations. But again, with Chikazawa already ticking the 'youth' box and possessing a strong local support base, does Hibi really have anything to contribute to the debate?

The Chikazawa campaign HQ certainly seems to think so. Listening to the mumbling and grumbling, it is clear that worries of a split vote and a successful reborn LDP campaign are growing, and there are fears that both of the DPJ-sponsored candidates may ultimately be left worse off. Either way, Hibi needs to up the tempo. A mad bicycle ride may not be quite enough.

R J F Villar

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