National / Politics

Local focus delivers win in Kochi for ruling bloc's gubernatorial pick as voters ignore Abe scandals

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito won a local victory Sunday night in a gubernatorial poll in Kochi Prefecture, as voters chose to ignore national political scandals engulfing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and support the hand-picked successor of the current governor over a candidate backed by all the major opposition parties.

Seiji Hamada, 56, a former Osaka vice governor and internal affairs ministry bureaucrat strongly supported by the LDP and Komeito, defeated Kenji Matsumoto, 35, a member of the Kochi chapter of the Japanese Communist Party who was supported by all the major opposition parties.

The voter turnout rate was 47.67 percent, the lowest since 2007. Hamada beat Matsumoto by over 62,000 votes.

The contest was widely judged by the ruling and opposition parties to be test of how angry voters might be about recent resignations by members of Abe’s Cabinet and the ongoing investigation in the Diet related to the prime minister’s involvement in and use of tax money for an annual cherry blossom-viewing party. Next year’s party has been canceled due to the controversy.

Abe has also come under fire for not having kept documents related to a dinner with 800 of his supporters at the Hotel New Otani in central Tokyo the night before the party. The cost, which Abe claims was ¥5,000 per person, has been queried by opposition parties as being unrealistically low. While Abe has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, he continues to face political and media questioning over the matter.

In Kochi, the opposition parties had hoped to use the revelations and allegations of cronyism surrounding Abe to their advantage, and as a test case for cooperation the next time a Lower House election is held.

Despite Matsumoto’s loss, at least one opposition leader saw the voter turnout as a positive sign for future all opposition-party cooperation, especially in the next Lower House election. “The fact that all of the opposition parties came together and the opposition party leaders fought as one will be a big asset for the next election,” said JCP head Kazuo Shii.

But for the ruling coalition the Kochi victory came as a welcome relief, with senior LDP leaders suggesting that it showed voters were not willing to ditch them just because of the recent scandals.

“The negative impact of national politics was wiped away,” LDP Election Strategy Committee Chairman Hakubun Shimomura told reporters Sunday night following Hamada’s victory. “The Kochi election result will be a big plus for influencing the next Lower House election,” he added.

But local elections tend to be less about the problems of the national government, and hinge more on local issues, local popularity and who supports you locally.

Hamada, who announced his candidacy in August, was the hand-picked successor of current Gov. Masanao Ozaki — a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat who first won office in 2007 and is retiring with plans to run in the next Lower House election.

Hamada campaigned by promising to build upon the popular Ozaki’s efforts to get central government funding for local infrastructure projects, and to work on “soft” issues such as bringing younger people back to the prefecture by improving social welfare services for child care. Like most rural prefectures, dealing with a shrinking, graying population is the main political and social issue for politicians of all stripes.

Kochi Prefecture’s population was nearly 750,000 in 2012, but by 2018 had fallen to 706,000. In 2012, residents between the ages of 15 and 64 accounted for 58 percent of the population. By last year that had dropped to 54 percent. In the same period, the percentage of those 65 and older increased from about 30 percent in 2012 to nearly 35 percent in 2018.