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Inaugural Internet campaigning not proving to be game-changer in poll

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The power of the Internet is unlikely to have a major impact on the results of Sunday’s Upper House election because the Liberal Democratic Party is widely expected to win and the candidates are opting to campaign in person.

While the election is the first in Japan to let candidates and political parties campaign online, critics say it hasn’t changed a thing because the tool is being left by the wayside.

“We haven’t seen many updates to (candidate) blog posts since the election launch,” said Kota Otani, editor-in-chief of Blogos, a site that aggregates the blog postings of 40 incumbent lawmakers. “As the election drew closer, they realized that it would be more effective to hit the streets or the campaign trail to shout their names from the sound truck.”

The revision of the 1950 Public Offices Election Law in April was intended to increase voter turnout, especially among the young. Allowing politicians to actively use blogs, websites and social networking services to engage the public was expected to get younger people more interested in the issues.

The move forced candidates young and old to upgrade their Internet skills by setting up social networking accounts and websites. But critics say that few are using these tools to debate the issues and that most are just making comments and updates about future gatherings, speeches and requests for support.

The bottom line seems to be that voter interest in the election is down because there is no perceived chance of change and no way to control the result.

Video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga recently streamed a party leader debate that drew only 90,000 viewers, compared with a whopping 1.4 million who watched a similar event it streamed for the first time ahead of the Lower House election last December, when the LDP returned to power.

Yahoo Japan Corp., which designed the Minna no Seiji (People’s Politics) service in 2006 to consolidate information about politicians, has set up a special site just for the House of Councilors election. But the Web portal said access is down slightly compared with the December election.

“This election has not caught much attention because it will not bring any change in government,” said Hisaya Shiraishi, who manages Minna no Seiji. “People have also been fixated with the idea that the LDP will sweep the election based on media reports, and thus are not aggressively seeking information.”

The LDP-New Komeito coalition is forecast to seize a majority in the upper chamber but not a coveted two-thirds supermajority.

But will their presumed success have anything to do with the Internet?

The LDP, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is known for his Facebook addiction, gave iPad minis to every candidate that it endorsed and also developed smartphone apps. But the candidates are keener to use traditional campaigning techniques, such as speeches or public engagements where it can meet voters in person.

According to Yahoo Japan, there are fewer LDP tweets or re-tweets compared with candidates from other parties.

And the Internet hasn’t really helped the opposition, either.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which was brutally ousted from power in December, hasn’t made any headway in rebranding itself, online or off. Even its most tech-savvy candidate, who was instrumental in revising the 1950 campaign law, is at risk of losing his seat.

The advent of online campaigning has meanwhile revealed some loopholes.

Politicians hoped the Internet would help celebrities get more people interested in the election. But when the presenter of a popular NHK dance program for children posted a picture of an LDP candidate on his Facebook account, the public broadcaster decided to postpone his show to avoid the perception it was playing favorites in the election.

The Public Offices Election Law stipulates that broadcasters should treat candidates equally after campaigning begins by giving all candidates nearly equal coverage.

And although online electioneering was expected to increase participation, turnout is expected to be lower than the 57.92 percent logged for the 2010 Upper House election. According to a poll by the Asahi Shimbun, fewer people intend to vote in Sunday’s election compared with the 2010 poll.

No matter what happens, critics say that the advent of online electioneering was an important first step in creating more opportunity for political debate.

“We learned from this experience. We will aggregate more records and policy issues on each politician before the next election so that we can provide better information,” Otani of Blogos said.