Japan's Ruling Party Poised To Lose Big

It's the last day of campaigning in Japan's elections, which the ruling Liberal Democratic Party looks set to lose by a landslide. The LDP has ruled almost uninterrupted since 1955, yet finally their vote-gaining machine has broken down.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Libya back in the news. But first, it's the eve of Japan's lower house election, which, if predictions are correct, will mark the end of an era. It's likely to sweep from power the liberal Democratic Party after 53 years of almost uninterrupted rule. Despite the drive for change, one old school practice still remains.

NPR's Louisa Lim tells a tale of two candidates.

Unidentified Person: (Japanese spoken)

LOUISA LIM: Here in the seaside town of Yokosuka, fierce electioneering is going on. There's a huge battle for one seat. And it's not just any seat - it's the seat of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He's stepping down, and he's been hoping to follow what's become quite a normal practice - passing his seat onto his own son.

Now, his son would normally be a shoe-in, but this year nothing is normal.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: His opponent Katsuhito Yokokume's path to politics is certainly anything but normal. The 27-year-old shot to fame on a reality TV show. His nickname on the show, Sori(ph), or prime minister.

His supporters still call him that. The son of a truck driver, he paid his own way through a Tokyo university to become a lawyer. Now he represents the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes hereditary seats. He says his opponent, Shinjiro Koizumi, inherited more than just his father's name.

Mr. KATSUHITO YOKOKUME: (Through translator) At the beginning, I had a lot of disadvantages. He had everything. I had nothing - no funds, no long-term supporters, no connections. But I come from an ordinary family and I understand what ordinary life is like, so that is my advantage.

LIM: He's been waging an energetic campaign, cycling 30 miles a day around his constituency. He's already won over some supporters of the ruling party, people like Fuji Onata(ph), a salesman laid off after 20 years at one company, who's having a cigarette outside the job center.

Mr. FUJI ONATA: (Through translator) The LDP is kind of arrogant. I blame them for making a society where the strong get rich and hard work can succeed. Now we need to think about how the weaker members of society can also have a good life.

LIM: The growing inequality is largely seen as the legacy of Junichiro Koizumi, the Elvis-loving former prime minister. He also took aim at pork barrel politics, seeking to destroy the iron triangle of politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats.

But political science Professor Koichi Naikano(ph) says his structural reform ended up destroying the party's vote-gathering machine.

Professor KOICHI NAIKANO (Political Science): Basically, it hit hard some of the most loyal supporters of the LDP over the years. And so the farmers, the construction business, they too feel like they want to punish the LDP for the Koizumi years, for what they perceive to be excessive zeal in pursuing reform and making cuts in public spending.

LIM: So we're now following the campaign van of Shinjiro Koizumi, but it's really difficult to get a hold of him because he won't get out of the van. So I'm just going to stop. It's a red light. I'm going to jump out and try to talk to him. Here we go.

Excuse me, Mr. Koizumi, I'm from National Public Radio. I just wanted to ask you, some of your…

Mr. SHINJIRO KOIZUMI: We don't have any time to do an interview.

LIM: Koizumi the younger does have lots of fans, even if he has no time for journalists. One supporter is Sanaye Fujiyoka(ph), who serves customers in her family's 75-year-old bean curd shop. For her, supporting the Koizumis is a family tradition. And in the ruling party, hereditary seats are also a tradition. One-third of its legislators inherited their seats.

But her praise of the younger Koizumi isn't exactly wholehearted.

Ms. SANAYE FUJIYOKA: (Through translator) He's improved a lot compared to when they first announced him as a candidate, especially the way he talks.

LIM: The 28-year-old's handsome face is plastered all over town. He's bright too, with a Master's from Columbia University. In the end he's both benefiting from and battling against his father's legacy.

Yuichito Nagajima(ph) from consulting firm Crimson Phoenix.

Mr. YUICHITO NAGAJIMA (Crimson Phoenix): Junichiro Koizumi said that if he couldn't have his way, he would destroy the LDP. And I think in a funny way he's actually doing that. His legacy is now to dismantle the one-party government of the past five decades.

LIM: This race is too close to call. But the battle between the novice from nowhere and the fourth-generation would-be legislator symbolizes the struggle over Japan's political future.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Yokosuka, Japan.

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