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Prime minister's son struggles in Japan election

Nearly any other year, Shinjiro Koizumi could safely assume he'd win election to Japan's parliament. After all, this seaside district just south of Tokyo has been called the "Koizumi Kingdom." His father, a popular prime minister, held the seat for years, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather.

world Updated: Aug 19, 2009 08:29 IST

Nearly any other year, Shinjiro Koizumi could safely assume he'd win election to Japan's parliament. After all, this seaside district just south of Tokyo has been called the "Koizumi Kingdom." His father, a popular prime minister, held the seat for years, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather.

But this is not a normal year.

The 28-year-old Koizumi is the target of growing public grumbling over the widespread practice of hereditary politics, in which a legislative seat is passed down from parent to child like an heirloom. Critics say the system is disadvantageous to newcomers and discourages change.

And this year, voters want change. Economic woes and worries about a scandal-ridden pension system and a ballooning government debt could bring down the once invincible Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled nearly continuously for more than five decades. As campaigning got under way Tuesday, the latest poll showed the opposition Democratic Party of Japan ahead by a wide margin. The August 30 election is for the lower house, which picks the prime minister.

So the son of Junichiro Koizumi, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, is in a surprising fight for the seat his 67-year-old father is vacating.

The Democratic Party has made banning hereditary politics, called "seshu," one of its main campaign pledges, although some of its own party members have benefited from the practice. "Seshu is turning into a politically sensitive issue," said Minoru Morita, who has written books on politics. "The trend will be toward declining seshu because such candidates are going to have a harder time getting elected."

Even the Liberal Democratic Party has refrained from backing the son of a retiring legislator as an official candidate in at least one district.

About a third of the legislators in Japan's lower house have won seats held previously by a family member. Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose popularity ratings have plunged, counts past prime ministers among his relatives, including his grandfather and an in-law. Calling out to commuters at a train station in his hometown of Yokosuka, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo, Shinjiro Koizumi pleads for support, bowing deeply and shaking hands with any passer-by who will stop.

He tries to distance himself from his political lineage and his father, who has no scheduled public appearances to support his son. Wearing sneakers and a polo shirt, he looks more like the kid next-door than a prime minister's son.

He reminds voters he is a local boy, a surfer, and trumpets his lack of experience _ to show he's not part of the political establishment.

"I have no record. I have no experience," he shouts through a megaphone. "But I have the passion to create a better Japan." To a reporter, though, he doesn't hide his affection for his father.

"He's the perfect dad. There is no other father in the world who gave so much love," he said. His main opponent is equally intent on driving home the message he's a regular guy, the son of a truck driver.

Katsuhito Yokokume, a 27-year-old lawyer who graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo, pedals around on a bicycle to woo neighborhood voters. "It is too strange by global standards that a change of power hasn't happened for so long in Japan," the Democratic candidate says.

Except for an 11-month interruption in the early 1990s, the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled Japan since 1955. The two young candidates don't differ much on policies. Both promise an economically healthier Japan and a problem-free pension system.

There are no formally published media polls for this district yet, but campaigners acknowledge the race is close. But amid the worst economic downturn since the Depression, public sentiment has turned against the ruling party.

Voters have been unimpressed with a rapid succession of Liberal Democratic prime ministers, three within the last three years. None have the charisma of the elder Koizumi, nicknamed "lion-heart" for his mane of silver hair and aggressive reforms. He won a landslide victory, his 12th, in the Yokosuka district in the last elections in 2005.

That Koizumi magic appears to be fading. Some voters blame his reforms, such as loosening regulations to make Japan more open to outside competition, for exacerbating the economic slump.

"Koizumi doesn't really have that good a reputation around here. He didn't do that much for us," said 38-year-old cab driver Akihiko Yoshida, who is considering voting for the opposition. But Eriko Komazaki, 26, a clerical worker, likes Shinjiro Koizumi's earnestness and clean-cut looks. "He is a bit different from his father," she said.

"He is closer to the people." Japanese voters seem to place a heavy emphasis on the personal appeal of candidates, not necessarily policy differences, says analyst Atsuo Ito. He expects Koizumi will hang onto his father's seat in the end.

"Despite the criticism against seshu," he said, "there are still many loyal fans in Koizumi Kingdom."