Osaka – A Lower House by-election in Shizuoka Prefecture, the race for which officially kicked off Tuesday, is gaining attention nationwide, and not only for its possible national political impact.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the April 26 election has forced candidates and their supporters to adjust their traditional campaign methods in unprecedented ways to maintain social distancing.
Here’s a look at what the election means.
Why is there a national election now and who is running?
The by-election for a Lower House seat in Shizuoka’s No. 4 district, which includes parts of the city as well as the cities of Fuji and Fujinomiya, became necessary after the district’s representative, former Environment Minister Yoshio Mochizuki from the Liberal Democratic Party, died in December.
Four candidates are running. One of the main ones is Yoichi Fukazawa, 43, an LDP candidate also backed by its junior coalition partner Komeito.
Born in the city of Shizuoka, he’s a former prefectural assembly member who was a secretary to former Lower House member Shozo Harada and his son, former Lower House member Yoshitsugu Harada. Both represented Shizuoka Prefecture’s No. 2 district, which includes the cities of Shimada and Makinohara.
Fukazawa’s main opponent is Ken Tanaka, 42, an ex-Tokyo assemblyman born in what is now Fuji. In the 2017 Lower House election, Tanaka lost to Mochizuki. He is backed by the four main opposition parties: the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party for the People, the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.
Two other candidates are running. Ken Tanaka, no relation to the above, 54, is supported by the Party to Protect the People from NHK. Kenzo Yamaguchi, 72, is running as an independent.
Why is this election significant?
Three reasons. First, for its impact on the race within the LDP to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Mochizuki had been particularly close to LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida and a key leader in the 46-member Kochikai, the party faction led by Kishida.
The loss of the experienced political operator Mochizuki was seen as a blow to Kishida’s efforts to become prime minister once Abe leaves office. Victory in the Shizuoka election by supporting Fukazawa is being touted by the Kishida faction as a way to honor Mochizuki’s death and, hopefully, strengthen Kishida in his efforts at winning increased national party support in his quest for the prime ministership.
Kishida’s reputation within the party as a strong campaigner on behalf of other candidates took a blow following the July 2019 Upper House election, in which four of the nine candidates he actively supported were defeated.
The second and larger reason is that the election takes place at a time when a national emergency has been declared for all 47 prefectures. While Shizuoka Prefecture is urging everyone to practice social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel to the capital, there are concerns about cluster outbreaks and a rise in the number of infections during the election campaign.
Finally, the backing of Tanaka by the four major opposition parties is another effort by them to rally around one agreed-upon candidate rather than run their own candidates and split the opposition vote. The result of the election is likely to impact opposition unification attempts at the national level, possible mergers among the CDP, DPP, and SDP, and cooperation with the JCP.
How are the candidates, their party supporters and the prefecture dealing with concerns over the virus?
From Tuesday, planned mass rallies by the candidates, as well as some activities that involved physical contact with voters, were canceled.
What this will mean in practice in terms of regular daily events is not entirely clear. While Fukazawa and the main opposition party-backed Tanaka had outdoor speeches scheduled, they promised to practice social distancing and avoid gathering large crowds.
Senior ruling party figures in Tokyo, including Kishida, as well as the leaders of the four opposition parties, have all said they will not come to Shizuoka during the campaign to stump for their candidates. Instead, the candidates will be relying far more on social media, including video messages, than in the past. Some traditional methods, such as direct telephone calls to area voters in order to drum up support, will also be strengthened.
But less traditional face-to-face campaigning, no mass rallies and a lack of high-profile visits by senior party leaders from Tokyo has raised concern among the various candidates about a low voter turnout rate.
In response, the prefecture increased the number of polling locations and extended the daily hours as well as the period for early voting. In addition, a system with ballot boxes on buses that go around the district to collect votes for early voting is being introduced. Finally, the prefecture is calling on voters who show up at polling booths to practice physical distancing.
What are the main issues and the views of the main candidates?
Dealing with the coronavirus at the national and local levels is the common issue in this campaign. The two main candidates have called for national and local efforts to develop a vaccine, as well as strengthening of efforts to ensure local medical facilities procure the equipment needed for testing and treatment.
Fukazawa has called for the central government to communicate the situation regarding the coronavirus better and more accurately, while Tanaka has said he would seek a program of assistance for not only those who are seriously ill but also mildly ill or who show no symptoms.
Tanaka’s platform, meanwhile, calls for protecting areas along the coast against damage caused by earthquakes, flooding and typhoons. Fukazawa is emphasizing redevelopment of the port of Shimizu to attract more cruise ships and foreign tourists.
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