National / Politics

Kochi gubernatorial race seen as barometer on voter attitudes toward Abe

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Kochi Prefecture’s gubernatorial election Sunday pitting a ruling coalition-backed candidate against an opponent supported by the main opposition parties is being seen as an important gauge of voter sentiment amid recent scandals that have engulfed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and on opposition camp unity.

Two candidates are running: Seiji Hamada, 56, a former internal affairs bureaucrat and Osaka vice governor, with backing from the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition, and Kenji Matsumoto, 35, a Japanese Communist Party member who also has the backing of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party For the People, and other smaller parties.

Local issues, including policies to deal with local revitalization at a time when the population is graying, are talked up by both candidates. But the election comes about a month after a string of scandals in Abe’s Cabinet that have the LDP increasingly worried about the impact on the Kochi vote.

Isshu Sugawara was forced to resign late last month from his post as economy, trade, and industry minister following media reports accusing him of election campaign law violations. Less than a week later, Katsuyuki Kawai resigned as justice minister after a magazine alleged his wife violated election laws when she campaigned for her Upper House seat.

Then, education minister Koichi Hagiuda created a storm of controversy after he said students seeking to be admitted to university should compete in accordance with their standing, implying financial standing. He was forced to apologize but has not resigned.

Finally, Abe himself has come under fire in recent days over expenditures related to the government’s annual cherry blossom-viewing party and a government-sponsored dinner held the day before. On Wednesday, Kyodo News reported Abe and his local office arranged a dinner party in 2015 for supporters at a Tokyo hotel where they did not stay. He has already faced allegations by opposition parties about possible election law violations over the actual cost of the dinners and who paid for them.

A telephone survey of Kochi voters conducted by Kyodo News last weekend showed the ruling party-backed Hamada leading the race. But with the growing scandal surrounding Abe’s cherry blossom party showing no signs of ending soon, party elders were increasingly concerned.

“I think there will be a large impact,” said Hakubun Shimomura, the LDP’s election strategy committee chairman, in a reply to reporters’ questions Monday about the effect of the scandal on the Kochi election. The same day, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said there was concern about the political fallout.

Meanwhile, in Kochi, as the campaign headed into its final days, the opposition-backed Matsumoto was stepping up his criticism of Abe and the LDP.

“(Abe and the LDP) have decided there was nothing untoward in what they did,” he told supporters Tuesday.

Hamada, for his part, is emphasizing local economic growth and relying on the LDP leadership and retiring Gov. Masanao Ozaki, who is expected to run in the next Lower House election, to attack the opposition.

“Just criticizing and opposing the central government doesn’t work. Let’s work with the central government to get critical infrastructure projects for Kochi,” said Ozaki at a rally Tuesday for Hamada.