SHIZUOKA – A ruling party candidate won a seat in a lower house by-election in Shizuoka Sunday under a state of emergency over the coronavirus, providing some relief to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose response to the pandemic has been criticized.
Yoichi Fukazawa of the Liberal Democratic Party, who was also backed by its junior coalition partner Komeito, defeated Ken Tanaka, who was endorsed by four major opposition parties in the first national poll since the coronavirus outbreak began. Voter turnout was a record low of 34.10 percent.
The election in the Shizuoka No. 4 district was an opportunity for the ruling coalition to justify their crisis response that opposition lawmakers have criticized as slow and out of touch with the public. It was also marked by firsts for both candidates and voters as Japan scrambles to contain COVID-19.
There was no banzai cheer to celebrate or presentation of a bouquet, as Fukazawa’s camp broke with customs as measures against coronavirus infection.
“Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe, the government has been rolling out a series of steps but I’m aware of the criticism that they are not enough,” the 43-year-old Fukazawa told reporters. “We will carry out necessary measures.”
Abe’s support ratings have fallen in recent media polls. His plan to distribute cloth masks to all households has hit a snag amid complaints of defects by recipients and the recent posting of a video meant to deliver his “stay at home” message was criticized as tone deaf.
In the run-up to Sunday’s poll, Abe yielded to pressure from Komeito after his cash handout plan was met with criticism. He made an abrupt policy change in mid-April to provide ¥100,000 ($930) per person to support all people affected by his emergency declaration that was expanded nationwide in mid-April.
A senior LDP lawmaker said voters gave the party a vote of confidence, but another member elected from Shizuoka said, “I didn’t feel we were winning even at the end (of the campaign).”
As the entire nation is under a state of emergency until May 6, the candidates refrained from holding large gatherings for supporters and ditched handshakes to reduce transmission risks.
The election was held to fill a seat vacated by former Environment Minister Yoshio Mochizuki, who died in December at the age of 72.
People have been asked to stay at home unless there is an urgent reason to go out. Abe has taken a negative stance toward postponing elections, saying they are at the heart of democracy and voting is deemed as essential.
Election staff disinfected each pencil after voters cast their ballots at polling stations and left windows and doors open to ensure proper ventilation and minimize infection risks. Voters were asked to disinfect their hands and put on gloves before voting.
During 12 days of campaigning, the candidates turned to social media and YouTube so voters could virtually experience stump speeches and understand policy priorities. Senior party executives sought to reach out to voters in Shizuoka from Tokyo under the nationwide state of emergency.
Some campaign staff acknowledged that online campaigning had its limits given the number of elderly and some other voters not accustomed to social media.
The opposition camp apparently failed to make full use of the opportunity to strengthen their multiparty cooperation as a counter to the ruling coalition ahead of the next election for the House of Representatives that needs to be held by October 2021.
“I received support irrespective of party lines, but I wasn’t able to live up it,” Tanaka said.
He used his campaign to step up criticism of the government’s emergency measures against coronavirus and vowed to extend more support to struggling small and midsize firms.
The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party for the People, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party supported Tanaka, a 42-year-old former metropolitan assembly member in Tokyo.
According to Kyodo News exit polls, 49.3 percent of 1,056 respondents said they backed the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, while 43.2 percent did not. Most of those who supported the government response, or 73.3 percent, voted for the LDP’s Fukazawa, while Tanaka, garnered support from 55.3 percent of those critical of the handling.
Two other candidates were independent Kenzo Yamaguchi, 72, and Ken Tanaka, 54, of NHK Kara Kokumin o Mamoru To (Party to Protect the People from NHK) established by a former employee of NHK, formally called Japan Broadcasting Corp.
As there were two Tanakas that shared the same first name and kanji, the local election board decided to ask voters to write the age of the candidate they voted for on ballot papers.
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