National / Politics

Should Japan vote during the pandemic?

by Eric Johnston

STAFF WRITER

Calls to postpone elections until after the current state of emergency due to the coronavirus were growing in late April after a Shizuoka by-election for a Diet seat saw a record low turnout of just 34.1 percent.

But with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party opposed to postponement despite growing pressure from coalition partner Komeito and with experts skeptical about the quick introduction of internet voting, how to ensure that upcoming elections have a high turnout if the state of emergency is still in place remains a tough question.

As of the end of last month, 15 political races around the country had been held under the national state of emergency, including 14 local elections. There were record low turnouts in 10 of them, including the Shizuoka campaign.

Voluntary restrictions by the political parties on electioneering meant candidates and their supporters avoided holding large rallies, shaking voters' hands and the kinds of personal contact that are the normal practice to get the vote out. This made the Shizuoka by-election especially difficult not only for the candidates but also their major party supporters in Tokyo.

The LDP's Yoichi Fukazawa, 43, who was also backed by Komeito, won the election. But neither he nor his main opponent, Ken Tanaka, 42, who was backed by the major opposition parties, brought in senior national party leaders from Tokyo to campaign on their behalf.

Large rallies, hand-shaking events and stump speeches in the streets with lots of people packed together were, by mutual agreement among all candidates, not held out of deference to public health concerns. Instead, the top LDP, Komeito and opposition party leaders posted video messages on websites and social media, and all candidates relied more heavily than usual on phone banks.

At polling stations, voters were asked to disinfect their hands, put on gloves before voting and practice social distancing.

Even before the Shizuoka election, there were calls within Komeito to consider legislation that would allow local elections to be postponed until after the current state of emergency. Komeito often relies on mass rallies with its Soka Gakkai supporters to garner support for its chosen candidate.

“Given the danger of infection, is asking that people please vote a proper (way to hold an) election in a democracy?” Komeito head Natsuo Yamaguchi asked April 14 just as the Shizuoka campaign began.

To postpone elections or not is a question being asked not only in Japan but worldwide. The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization made up of 33 democratic states and with Japan as an official observer, has been tracking the effect of the coronavirus on elections worldwide since mid-March.

As of the end of April, the institute estimated that between March and April at least 51 countries and territories had decided to postpone national and local elections due to the virus. Another 19 decided to hold elections as originally planned.

In the United States, 15 presidential primary elections originally scheduled to take place between March and May were postponed, although many other states still plan to go forward with their primary elections, the institute said. The presidential election remains on schedule for Nov. 3.

A number of countries with elections planned for May and thereafter intend to go ahead as scheduled. These include presidential elections in Poland (May 10), where people will vote by mail, and Iceland (June 27), and a general election in New Zealand on Sept. 19.

The April 15 national assembly races in South Korea, with a turnout rate of 66.2 percent, drew worldwide attention for being one of the first countries to hold national elections during the pandemic. A total of 300 seats were up for grabs in a country first hit by the coronavirus in January.

Before the vote, South Korea announced specific measures to reduce the threat of spreading the virus. The country’s 14,330 polling stations were disinfected on the eve of the election, and poll workers were ordered to wear masks and plastic gloves. Once polling began, workers regularly disinfected voting booths, ballot stamps and other election materials.

Voters who were quarantined at home due to the virus were allowed to go to the polling stations after the official voting hours had ended. Everyone who went to polling stations was ordered to wear a face mask and had to have their body temperatures checked with noncontact thermometers before they were allowed to cast their ballot.

There were a number of measures put in place for the candidates as well. Handshakes were not allowed. At the beginning of the campaign people would fist-bump candidates, but that too was considered unsafe. Normal campaign activities were curtailed, and candidates and supporters were urged to practice social distancing of the kind that would later be seen in Japan and other countries.

In a report on South Korea's handling of the elections under the pandemic, Antonio Spinelli, senior adviser for International IDEA’s Asia and Pacific Regional Program, said there were lessons for Japan and the rest of the world. Many of the measures in South Korea were also used in Japan's recent local campaigns, including the Shizuoka by-election.

The first thing to consider, Spinelli said, is whether the country has the ability to hold an election based on predictions of what the situation with the coronavirus will be like at the time of the poll.

“Japan is currently experiencing a second wave of infections (in Hokkaido). Should this continue to dramatically increase and become a crisis of even greater proportions than now, then — unless absentee voting arrangements are in place (for all voters) — holding the local elections through in-person voting at the polling stations may be unfeasible,” Spinelli said.

A lesson to be learned from South Korea is the importance of having a solid, well-established and proven electoral framework in place that ensures a safe voting environment. While Japan may have a framework as solid, trusted and credible as South Korea’s, its effective use, Spinelli noted, would remain heavily dependent on keeping the coronavirus outbreak to a level that would allow the local elections to be held with due safeguards and precautions in place.

“The main piece of advice here for the government of Japan, before making any decisions, would be that of realistically evaluating what level of means and resources it can effectively mobilize to respond to the challenge of possibly holding the local elections under the threat of the pandemic,” Spinelli said.

Holding elections during a pandemic or where people can’t get to the voting booth has raised the prospect of increasing use of the internet to vote. In Japan, electronic voting at the local level has been a reality since 2002. But this is not the same thing as staying at home and voting over the Internet.

Electronic voting in Japan still requires that people cast their electronic ballots at a designated polling station. Even with strict measures to check identification, there have been problems. In July 2003, the server crashed during a local election in Kani, Gifu Prefecture. A lawsuit against e-voting was launched, and the election was ruled invalid.

Such incidents and the fear of security problems that could invalidate an election means getting political agreement on internet voting is even more difficult. Ryosuke Nishida, an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an expert on Japan’s election system, said internet voting is unrealistic for now because of the cost and security issues.

“In the Japanese political and bureaucratic worlds, use of internet voting is not seen as something positive. While Estonia (with a population of only 1.3 million) has internet voting, there are few examples in other countries,” he said.

While no national election is expected anytime soon, two key local elections drawing wider political attention are due to take place over the coming months. June will see elections for the prefectural assembly in Okinawa, where the issue of the U.S. Marine facility now being constructed at Henoko is expected to loom large. Then, in July, the election for Tokyo governor takes place.

While there is no way to predict what the coronavirus situation will be like by the time campaigning for these elections is due to begin, Nishida believes basic voting methods now in place won’t change if politicians see the pandemic as something that will be over fairly soon.

“As long as the threat of the coronavirus isn’t long term, Japan will continue to vote the way it has before,” he said.

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