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From Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to newly elected opposition leader Renho and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, political leaders in Japan are setting their eyes on two key by-elections slated for later this month.

The Oct. 23 polls will take place in the electoral districts of Tokyo No. 10 and Fukuoka No. 6, to fill the seats vacated by Koike, who became governor in July, and former internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama, who died in June. Campaigning will kick off on Oct. 11.

We look the significance of the by-elections and the current political tug-of-war:

Why are the elections important?

The two by-elections come on the heels of intensifying speculation that Abe may dissolve the Lower House for a snap election as early as January.

In a break with tradition, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced last week that it will hold its annual party convention in March, instead of January. Some interpreted the delay as strategic and designed to give Abe the option to go ahead with a snap election early next year.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, said last week at a Tokyo event that the dissolution of the Lower House “could happen anytime.”

Winning a Lower House election will further consolidate Abe’s power and even give momentum to an ongoing debate within the LDP to extend his stint as party head beyond September 2018 — a scenario that would make him one of the longest-serving prime ministers in postwar history.

If LDP candidates win the by-elections, it will likely add to Abe’s confidence in his party’s popularity and more momentum to call a snap election, Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University, said.

“So the by-elections are very important for Abe,” he said.

Who besides Abe has a stake in the race?

For Toshihiro Nikai, an LDP veteran recently tapped as the party’s secretary-general, the by-elections will be the first national poll after he took up the No. 2 post in the LDP shake-up in August. The same goes for Renho, who became president of main opposition force, the Democratic Party, last month.

The outcome of the two elections will affect their political influence within their parties.

But the stakes are perhaps higher for Renho, who has gotten off to a rocky start amid criticism over her dual citizenship flip-flop and what some call her “biased” choice in new DP executives. Observers say losing big both in Tokyo and Fukuoka would destabilize her already shaky grip on power.

Are things going smoothly with the Tokyo by-election?

No. In fact, things are chaotic at best.

At the heart of controversy is LDP lawmaker Masaru Wakasa, who just weeks ago won his party’s endorsement to run for the Tokyo race.

The move came despite his recent clash with party executives over his controversial support of Tokyo Gov. Koike during her campaign for the July gubernatorial election. Wakasa, a longtime ally of Koike, stuck up for her despite criticism from party leaders who backed the party’s official candidate, Hiroya Masuda, a former Iwate governor.

But despite the LDP’s endorsement of Wakasa, which had been considered a sign of reconciliation, Wakasa says he remains deeply irked by the LDP Tokyo chapter’s “outrageous” threat to expel seven assembly members who stood up for Koike during her campaign. He is now threatening to quit the party even if he wins the by-election as an LDP-backed candidate.

“If the seven members are to be expelled, I — in light of my philosophy, sense of justice and identity as a politician — can’t possibly continue to be an LDP lawmaker,” Wakasa, a lawyer-turned politician, fumed in his Sept. 27 blog post.

Does the LDP have anything to worry about in Fukuoka, too?

Yes. Despite efforts by LDP election strategy committee chief Keiji Furuya, the party has failed to field a unified candidate for the Fukuoka No. 6 district, risking a split in conservative votes between two proteges of LDP heavyweights.

One is Jiro Hatoyama, son of the late Hatoyama, who is backed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. The other is Ken Kurauchi, son of a local LDP chapter executive, who is supported by Finance Minister Taro Aso.

With Suga and Aso both unwilling to pull out, the two will most likely run as independents, local media reports say. A plan is also being floated to have the LDP endorse the candidate who wins.

Behind the clash is what local media call Aso’s lingering enmity against the late Hatoyama, who stepped down as internal affairs minister in June 2009 after fighting with then-Prime Minister Aso over whether to reappoint the president of scandal-hit Japan Post Holdings.

Hatoyama’s exit dealt a heavy blow to the Aso administration, partly triggering the LDP’s historic defeat three months later and its brief fall from power.

Will these power struggles hinder the LDP from winning the by-elections?

Experts say no. LDP candidates in both the Tokyo and Fukuoka by-elections still appear to be the favorites, said Koji Nakakita, professor of political science at Hitotsubashi University.

In Tokyo, Wakasa faces off against DP-endorsed Yosuke Suzuki, a former NHK reporter. Suzuki’s campaign pledges include boosting tourism, solving the shortage of child day care centers and bolstering wages for nonregular workers.

Suzuki will almost certainly be campaigning with Renho, who herself garnered more than 1 million votes in an overwhelming victory in the July Upper House election in Tokyo. But Renho, Nakakita said, will somewhat be eclipsed by Koike, who is likely to give all-out support to Wakasa.

In Fukuoka, DP-backed Fumiko Arai, a former staffer at the Japanese Consulate-General in Chennai in southern India, expects a difficult ride, too. Despite the split in LDP votes, she still has to compete against front-runner Hatoyama, who enjoys high name-recognition in addition to organizational votes.

“The DP probably understands it is headed for a double defeat,” Nakakita said.

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