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Diet almost freed up Net campaigning

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo News

Political parties and candidates hoping to use the Internet to appeal to today’s tech-savvy voters were disappointed when the Diet failed to make it legal in time for the July 11 Upper House election.

But with both the ruling and opposition parties eager to embrace Net technology and the communication potential it offers, it’s just a matter of time before the nation sees parties and candidates vying in cyberspace for votes during elections.

“We really wanted to proclaim ‘Vote for the Liberal Democratic Party’ on our Web site,” said an official of the main opposition party in charge of its Web content, who declined to give his name citing an internal rule.

“But because that wasn’t legalized, little will change in our (home page) content during this campaign period,” he said.

Using the Internet to campaign is currently banned under the Public Offices Election Law.

The law limits the type of documents and pictures that can be distributed during a campaign to leaflets and postcards, and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry takes the view that words and images displayed on computer screens should come under this rule.

So, since Thursday — the start of the 17-day official campaign period for the Upper House election — no Web sites, blogs or Twitter accounts are allowed in principle to be updated by parties or candidates. Nor can they send e-mail as part of their campaigning.

Such a ban has long been criticized as outdated and out of sync with the Internet-immersed lifestyle that many young people — an untapped reservoir of votes due to their low turnout — have embraced.

Sensing a golden opportunity to connect with voters and win their support at the ballot box, politicians in both the ruling and opposition camps finally came up with a bill by late May to amend the election law for enactment during the regular Diet session that ended June 16.

But the sudden resignation in early June of Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister stood in the way of the legalization drive, and time ran out for the Diet to legislate the changes in time for the Upper House election.

Analysts have hailed the move to liberalize campaigning on the Internet, saying it is long overdue.

“The Public Offices Election Law hasn’t banned Internet use,” Keio University professor Yoshihiro Katayama argued, noting that only the internal affairs ministry’s legal interpretation has done so. “It’s a law enacted long before the arrival of the Internet.”

Katayama, a former governor of Tottori Prefecture, said Internet use should be encouraged because unlike distributing leaflets and postcards, uploading content on Web sites and sending e-mail cost much less — a great equalizer for money-stricken parties and candidates.

It is also hoped that legalizing Internet-based campaigning will increase voter turnout among young people, given that 46.7 percent of people aged 20 to 24 went to the ballot box in the closely watched Lower House election last August, compared with 85.0 percent for people aged between 65 and 69.

Masayasu Kitagawa, a professor at Waseda University’s Okuma School of Public Management, said there has long been a “reverse divide” in which young people don’t go to polling stations because the Internet can’t be tapped into for election campaigns.

“The nature of elections will completely change with the Internet,” the former Mie governor said, adding that politics are changing from pork-barrel-based to platform-centered, which he says sits more comfortably with the Internet.

Despite the apparent benefits, concerns remain about possible Internet-based smear campaigns and other kinds of abuse that could be unleashed by liberalization.