National / Politics

Aichi voting office overwhelmed by calls as right-wing campaign alleges foul play in re-election of Shiori Yamao

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

An election management office in Aichi Prefecture has been bombarded with irate calls and emails claiming Sunday’s re-election of independent lawmaker Shiori Yamao — who was forced to leave the Democratic Party last month amid allegations of an extramarital affair — was illegitimate.

Yamao, whose aggressive questioning style has made her a prominent adversary of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Diet debates, beat local rival Junji Suzuki, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, by a razor-thin margin of 800 votes in the election.

Yamao became the target of criticism last month when a weekly tabloid alleged that she was involved in an extramarital affair. The lawmaker and mother denied she had ever committed adultery but left the party nonetheless.

As the vote counting finished after midnight on Sunday, the Aichi election management office disclosed a preliminary result showing a sizable number of invalid votes in the No. 7 district where Yamao stood as a candidate, flagging 11,291 out of the 266,783 total ballots cast, or 4.23 percent, as invalid. Nowhere in the other 14 constituencies in Aichi did the percentage of invalid votes top 4 percent, the office said.

Word soon spread on the internet, home to so-called netouyo (online right-wingers) who are usually critical of Yamao’s tough stance against Abe. Citing the huge number of invalid votes, many said on an online forum that the vote-counting work smacks of wrongdoing and that it must have been rigged in Yamao’s favor.

The election office soon found itself deluged with angry calls to that effect, with some going so far as to demand ballots be re-counted, official Hitoshi Suehiro said.

“We have been receiving calls and emails almost non-stop,” Suehiro said, adding that the phone hasn’t stopped ringing as of Wednesday afternoon.

“Needless to say, the vote-counting work was conducted with absolute fairness. If a substantial number of votes cast for Suzuki were deliberately counted as invalid, as is being claimed by these complainers, then an observer aligned to Suzuki would’ve said something,” Suehiro said, adding he believes it is a “marginal group of hard-core internet users” who are behind the protest.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare who is familiar with voter psychology, said the large volume of invalid votes in the No. 7 district is not the result of rigging but simply reflects a protest statement against Yamao.

“It’s likely that voters who don’t support the LDP but at the same time can’t forgive Yamao for the affair — even though she denies it — decided to send a message that they don’t trust her by casting invalid votes,” Kawakami said.

But the extent to which her victory caused a backlash, he said, indicates that there is something about her that is inherently unacceptable for a particular demographic.

“She is an anathema to conservatives. To them, she is an archenemy of Abe — who has struggled to deal with her questioning a number of times … In this sense, she was an easy target for internet trolls, who know their bashing of her would gain approval from their like-minded peers.”