Japan voters wary of ex-PM Koizumi's dynastic plan

YOKOSUKA, Japan Thu Aug 13, 2009 10:01am IST

A combination photo shows Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso (L), who is also Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, and main opposition Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama during their debate session in Tokyo August 12, 2009.  REUTERS/Issei Kato

A combination photo shows Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso (L), who is also Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, and main opposition Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama during their debate session in Tokyo August 12, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Shinjiro Koizumi's political pedigree may give him added lustre with some voters but the son of Japan's popular ex-premier is finding it's not all rosy as he bids to take over a seat in parliament from his father.

Criticism of the practice of influential political families handing over power to the next generation has mounted ahead of an Aug. 30 election, in which the 28-year-old Koizumi is running on the ticket of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

"I know there is opposition to hereditary politics that I must overcome and even though they may think family politics may not be good, I ask all voters just to back me," Koizumi told Reuters less than three weeks before a poll that the LDP looks likely to lose.

Koizumi is running from the Yokosuka port area south of Tokyo, a stronghold for charismatic former leader Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down as prime minister after a five-year term as one of Japan's most popular politicians ever.

Political dynasties are common in Japan and both incumbent Prime Minister Taro Aso and opposition Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama are the rich grandsons of premiers.

But with criticism of such dynasties mounting, Junichiro Koizumi tarnished his reformist image when he announced last September that he would back Shinjiro in the next election.

"I'm thinking of not voting this time. I really don't want Koizumi Junior, who is taking over his father's turf without working hard himself," said long-time LDP backer Mitsuji Abe, 75.

"Rich people might all be that way, but I don't think they understand the popular will," said Abe, waiting near a train station in the hot summer sun.

Analysts say the practice, which is far more common in the LDP than among the opposition, gives dynastic candidates an unfair advantage in terms of organisation, funding and recognition.

Many also blame it for discouraging the best and the brightest from joining the ruling party and providing the top-notch leadership Japan needs as it confronts the deep-seated problems of an ageing, shrinking population.

HANDICAP FOR RIVALS

"Lawmakers are representatives of the people, so they should be diverse. But in the case of the LDP, over 30 percent of the Diet members are hereditary and they are losing diversity," said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.

"Because of that, many competent people are going to the Democratic Party."

About one in five Japanese lawmakers is the child or grandchild of an influential politician, compared with less than one in 20 in the United States and Britain.

Both the LDP and the Democrats have promised to ban the practice before the next general election.

But for now, Koizumi's opposition rival Katsuhito Yokokume says he has a big handicap just trying to get voters' attention.

"He has a network that will take him anywhere in the district and allows him to meet and greet people anywhere," said Yokokume, the 27-year-old son of a truck driver who graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo and has a law degree.

"I feel it's hard to compete with that."

Sporting a worn-out pair of $30 sneakers and a 100 yen ($1) tie, Yokokume usually cycles around the district to meet voters.

He started campaigning last October and has already handed out some 1 million leaflets as well as printing over 1 million posters. Such efforts, along with paying for his staff, have cost Yokokume at least 3 million yen ($31,290), he said.

Shinjiro Koizumi, who worked at a Washington think tank and served as an aide to his father after graduating from a private university near Tokyo and obtaining a masters degree from New York's Columbia University, only hit the streets in late June.

He travels in a rented Toyota Prius, his campaigners are all volunteers, and he has not printed any leaflets or posters.

Not all voters in Yokosuka are put off by the younger Koizumi's background, however, and political analysts expect him to win the race -- although by how much of a margin is unclear.

"I was a big fan of his father, Junichiro, so we have great hopes for his son," said 62-year-old Harue Hiratsuka.

And some are pondering an entirely different criterion for deciding how to cast their ballots.

"Koizumi is cute, so maybe I'll vote for him," said 57-year-old housewife Emiko Watanabe.

(Additional reporting by Hyun Oh and Dan Sloan)

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