National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Lackluster Hokkaido win puts Abe on the defensive but DP-JCP tie-up shortcomings remain

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A lackluster victory by the Liberal Democratic Party-backed candidate in a Hokkaido by-election Sunday likely leaves Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the defensive while also showing the need for opposition parties to coordinate better ahead of this summer’s Upper House election, political observers said Monday.

Former Mitsubishi Corp. businessman Yoshiaki Wada, endorsed by the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition, beat opposition-backed single mother Maki Ikeda by just 12,300 votes in a race where the turnout was 57.63 percent.

The by-election was significant in that it was the first major race since the current Abe Cabinet was inaugurated last October. It was widely seen as a harbinger of how the ruling LDP will fare in the coming Upper House election.

All eyes were also on Abe’s interpretation of the result and how that will affect his decision on whether to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election to coincide with the Upper House campaign.

“I believe the result shows there was certain support for the Abe administration’s efforts to revive the economy,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday.

Despite Suga’s assurances, Wada’s marginal victory will likely dissuade Abe from taking major political risks, further eroding the chance of a double election that was already considered unlikely in light of the powerful earthquakes this month that killed scores and caused widespread damage in Kumamoto Prefecture, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

“After the quakes, it has grown increasingly unlikely that (Abe) will call a double election,” lest he be seen prioritizing his political ambitions over the well-being of Kumamoto residents, Kawakami said.

“The result of this by-election would give him no reason to assume that the ruling coalition can continue to maintain its current two-thirds majority in the Lower House if it’s dissolved,” Kawakami said.

The race should have been much easier for the LDP, he added, given it was held to decide a successor to powerful LDP veteran Nobutaka Machimura, who died last year.

Analysts like Kawakami say Wada might have suffered a humiliating defeat had it not been for the quakes.

The relative competence with which the LDP responded to the Kumamoto quakes likely rekindled public confidence in the ruling party, which had been damaged by a recent string of gaffes and scandals, helping it get away with a narrow win, Kawakami said.

Ikeda, for her part, made an unexpectedly strong showing in the initial phase of the campaign as she called for improved welfare policies.

Portraying herself as a crusader for citizens dismayed with the political status quo, she also pushed to the fore her cooperation with citizens’ groups such as Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs).

Her message appeared to strike a chord with voters who, according to an exit poll Sunday by the Mainichi Shimbun, were most concerned about social security, followed by the economy.

This is not to say, however, that the opposition bloc emerged with flying colors.

The by-election campaign marked the first time that the main opposition Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party have tied up under the name of dethroning what they call an “uncontrollable” Abe administration.

Ikeda’s better-than-expected performance, then, offered proof that a coordinated effort by the opposition parties can present voters with a viable challenge to the ruling party, DP Secretary-General Yukio Edano said in a statement Sunday.

Still, while Ikeda may have put up a good fight, the number of votes she received, 123,517, were nearly the same as the total cast for the district’s Democratic Party of Japan and JCP candidates in the 2014 Lower House general election.

This suggests that Ikeda only managed to “consolidate existing anti-LDP votes in the region but failed to carve out fresh support,” Toyo University political science professor Katsuyuki Yakushiji said, adding that the result signifies a tough road ahead for any sustained DP and JCP cooperation.

Staff Writer Reiji Yoshida Contributed To This Story