National / Politics

Hokkaido and Kyoto by-election campaigns, measure of Abe's strength, get underway

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Two closely watched by-election campaigns kicked off Tuesday in Hokkaido and Kyoto in what are expected to be a litmus test for how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will fare in the crucial Upper House election this summer.

Some analysts say that even if the LDP loses both by-elections, which will take place April 24, Abe may dissolve the Lower House for a snap election to coincide with the Upper House poll for a double election.

Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, said Abe won’t want to give the opposition bloc breathing space to coordinate candidates for the Lower House, which would have more seats up for grabs than the Upper House.

The LDP appears to be pinning its hopes on the Hokkaido election. The party decided not to field a candidate for the Kyoto No. 2 district amid strong anti-LDP sentiment over Kensuke Miyazaki, who resigned his Lower House seat after admitting in February to an extramarital affair with a bikini model.

With one of the two leading candidates in the Hokkaido race backed by the LDP-Komeito coalition, and the other by four opposition parties, it is expected to be an all-out battle between the ruling and opposition blocs.

Many feel the outcomes of the by-elections will be a barometer of public sentiment over some of Abe’s controversial defense, economic and social security policies.

The Hokkaido by-election is being held to replace former Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, an LDP veteran who represented the Hokkaido No. 5 district in the Lower House until he died last year.

“I will dedicate all I have to my duty here,” Yoshiaki Wada, 44, said Tuesday. The LDP-backed former Mitsubishi Corp. businessman is making economic revival the cornerstone of his campaign.

His opponent, 43-year-old single mother Maki Ikeda, backed by the newly launched Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and other opposition parties, is calling for improved welfare policies.

“I want to build a society where everyone can live at peace and nobody is marginalized,” Ikeda said.

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday called the Hokkaido by-election a chance to impress voters with the fruits of the LDP’s economic and regional revitalization measures over the last few years.

But as the latest opinion poll by the Hokkaido Shimbun found voters there to be more concerned about social security than the economy, Ikeda’s background as a single mother battling poverty will likely strike a strong chord, Yamaguchi of Hosei University said.

An Ikeda win would provide anti-Abe forces with tremendous momentum to “say no” to his leadership and aggressive defense policy, he said.

This is not to say, however, that the opposing side has nothing to lose.

If Ikeda is beaten badly, it could send a negative message that the electoral tie-up between the DP and JCP is off to a rocky start, and could dissuade them from further cooperation.