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Out of Nowhere, Victory!
Wins by an unlikely pair of independents are shaking up Japan's stagnant political system

Gadfly: A writer-governor is shaking the establishment

Maekawa Takeshi, 50, took leave from his work at an Osaka catering firm, traveled up to Tokyo with his 20-year-old son, and camped for two weeks in the office of Kawada Etsuko while volunteering in her campaign for a seat in Japan's lower house of parliament. "Why? Because I wanted to join in giving the Liberal Democratic Party a last push from power," he says. He had lost faith in political parties, and he wanted to see the victory of someone he could believe in. Maekawa got his wish. In the Oct. 22 by-election, Kawada, an independent who had won fame by fighting the government on behalf of her HIV-infected hemophiliac son but had no previous electoral experience, defeated rivals from the ruling LDP and two opposition parties. Just a week earlier, a novelist won the race for governor of Nagano Prefecture. Tanaka Yasuo won against the former vice governor, the choice of the outgoing, 20-year incumbent. Suddenly, it's citizens versus politicians, and the citizens are winning.

Japanese politics used to be entirely predictable. The LDP was in bed with business and the bureaucracy. The opposition depended on labor unions to get out the vote. And the general public looked on in apathy. That resulted in the LDP controlling the national government for all but 10 months of the last 45 years, and dominating most local administrations as well. Now the public's apathy is shifting toward anger — and activism. In general elections last June, scores of young, first-time candidates contested the polls, mostly under opposition banners, while volunteers around the country organized debates or disseminated lists of "unsuitable" candidates via the Internet. The LDP lost its majority in parliament's lower house, forcing it to rely on coalition partners. Now the elections of Kawada and Tanaka are reminding the powers-that-be that their status can vanish, and reminding voters that their voices count. "With my victory as an independent, a new stream has opened in Japanese politics," Kawada crowed on election night. "I want to see this stream of citizen initiative spread throughout Japan!"

Her victory was quite a feat. When Kawada announced her candidacy for the suburban Tokyo seat just weeks before the polls, she had no organization to provide funds or canvass voters. As an independent, she had no access to television or radio. She could not put up posters on officially-sanctioned poster boards, and was limited to just 70,000 campaign flyers instead of the 110,000 allowed party-endorsed rivals. Facing her was Kato Sekiichi, an assemblyman from within the district, with the might of the LDP behind him, plus candidates from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Social Democratic Party. What Kawada did have was a volunteer force that grew to become 4,000 strong. "I heard Kawada-san speaking in her own voice, expressing her own beliefs, with no strings attached to any party — and I just wanted to help her," says Omoto Yasutaka, an 18-year-old who put aside preparations for college entrance exams to join her campaign.

The key is the growing number of "floating voters" who lack strong ties to any parties and are increasingly disgusted by the stagnant and scandal-ridded politics that have dominated Japan for decades. Many are completely turned off, resulting in shrinking turnouts at the polls, but more and more seem to be standing up to be counted. Plus, they are being joined by disgruntled LDP and DPJ supporters. Tanaka says the volunteers who powered his campaign in Nagano were not die-hard activists. "They are ordinary people of all ages and both genders, including salarymen commuting in rush hour trains and farmers in remote villages," he says. "They may have different lifestyles, values, tastes and views, but once they are united on their own initiative over issues directly linked to their lives, they can demonstrate in a powerful way who they are and what they want." And when they see a rare candidate they like, even in a far away district, they do act. Said a 69-year-old lady from neighboring Saitama prefecture who came to donate money to Kawada's fight: "I had never seen a candidate like her, someone who I can respect."

Kawada is special. In 1986, she had to tell her then 10-year-old son Ryuhei that he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from blood products he took to control his hemophilia. Virus-free heat-treated products had been available since 1983, but government officials and drug companies had dawdled for two years over their introduction in Japan. When Ryuhei was 19, he openly declared that he was HIV-positive, one of the first Japanese to do so. He and his mother became well-known campaigners on behalf of some 2,000 infected hemophiliacs demanding an apology and compensation from officials and pharmaceutical firms. (A class-action suit led to a settlement in 1996, three drug company officials were given prison sentences earlier this year, and the trial of a top government advisor continues.) The long battle transformed Kawada, now 51, from a quiet housewife into a fearless and independent fighter. "I learned that you can bring about changes only if you take action and do not give up," she says.

So is she the crest of a voter revolt about to sweep Japan? "Given the barriers she faced as an independent, her success was like someone on a bicycle going faster than a jet plane," says Miyagawa Taka-yoshi, head of the Center for Political Public Relations. "It will encourage others to run." But prominent independents have come and gone before. Political analyst Okazaki Shigenori of UBS Warburg in Tokyo notes that another parliamentary by-election held that day in rural Shiga Prefecture was won comfortably by the LDP. That showed voters outside of major cities still tend toward the familiar, and that only an exceptionally strong independent can beat the system. But, against Kawada, the LDP failed to match the vote count it won in the June polls, a significant slide, Okazaki says. The LDP certainly is worried. "We sent top party leaders and cabinet ministers to support our candidate," says Kato Koichi, a potential rival to Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro. That would have assured victory in the past, "but I feel an era is ending since it is not working anymore," he says.

The opposition DPJ is in a different sort of pickle. The party won much of the floating vote in the June polls and boosted its parliamentary presence by a third. But the Tokyo by-election was held because one of its MPs quit after admitting he had registered a woman as his policy secretary but never told her, and pocketed her state-paid salary. If the floating vote now shifts towards independents, the DPJ could have a harder time achieving its ambition of ousting the LDP from power. How-ever, Okazaki notes that independents have a hard time pushing their agenda once in power without allies, and so tend to move into the orbit of one party or another. "Political parties by no means can be written off," he says. And for an outsider like Kawada, the DPJ is a more natural ally than the LDP. Kawada herself says: "I do not regard the DPJ highly because it was cobbled together from a variety of groups and has conflicting views on issues." But she adds that she shares similar values with individual members and intends to keep in touch with them.

The status quo remains firmly entrenched in Japan — but not as firmly as before. At the top, the LDP seems increasingly bereft of ideas and talent. At the grassroots, the election of Kawada and Ta-naka show that citizens are increasingly impatient with business as usual. When those two forces collide, Japanese politics will at long last change.

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