The results of upcoming elections for three seats in the Diet are expected to have a heavy impact on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his administration, with both the ruling and opposition blocs aiming to gain momentum ahead of a general election to be held by autumn.
The April 25 elections in Hokkaido, Nagano and Hiroshima prefectures will be the first parliamentary polls since Suga became prime minister in September.
The ruling camp, led by Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, is determined to win the Hiroshima prefectural constituency seat in the House of Councilors, the upper chamber of the Diet, on the back of its strong presence in the region. The series of elections, meanwhile, will be a litmus test for opposition parties’ ability to cooperate in the general election for the House of Representatives, as uncertainty remains over their unity. The term of office for the Lower House members is set to expire on Oct. 21.
Official campaigning started Thursday for the election in Hiroshima and the Upper House by-election for the Nagano prefectural constituency, and is set to begin Tuesday for the Lower House by-election in the No. 2 constituency in Hokkaido.
The Hiroshima election comes after former LDP member Anri Kawai’s win in the July 2019 poll for the chamber was invalidated due to her guilty ruling in a vote-buying case.
“This time, we must elect the right person,” former LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who heads the party’s Hiroshima chapter, said at a campaign kickoff event held Thursday in the city of Hiroshima.
He was referring to the high-profile vote-buying scandal involving Anri Kawai and her husband, former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, who was also a member of the ruling party. Katsuyuki Kawai is still on trial over the case.
In the Hiroshima race, the CDP and two other opposition parties — the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) and the Social Democratic Party — are supporting a candidate who belongs to a local political group.
The LDP has opted not to field a candidate in the Lower House by-election in Hokkaido, which is being held following the resignation of former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa over a bribery scandal. He was indicted without arrest in January for allegedly taking a bribe and left the LDP the same month.
The Upper House seat in Nagano became vacant due to the death in December of former land minister Yuichiro Hata of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. The Nagano by-election, like the Hiroshima poll, is effectively a one-on-one battle between candidates backed by the ruling and opposition camps, and the opposition side has a strong support base in the Nagano constituency.
Potential headwinds in Nagano makes winning the Hiroshima election a must for Suga to be able to maintain a strong position of leadership, but the scandal involving the Kawais is casting a dark shadow over the ruling camp in the race.
In a recent survey conducted by the ruling bloc, the opposition-backed candidate in the Hiroshima election was shown to be rapidly catching up with the LDP candidate.
The situation is not good for us, a source close to Kishida said. “Voters in Hiroshima feel that they were cheated by the LDP.”
As Suga played a key role in tapping Anri Kawai as a candidate for the Hiroshima constituency in the 2019 election, he apparently finds it difficult to stand at the forefront of the current campaign.
With current Lower House lawmakers having only six months before the expiration of their term of office, LDP members are increasingly shifting their attention to the upcoming general election.
At a time when Suga faces strong criticism over his government’s response to the coronavirus, a Cabinet minister said, “If we lose all three elections, the administration would suffer a humiliating blow.”
In such a scenario, an increasing number of LDP members may voice concerns over a possible Lower House election under Suga, an LDP member who once held a ministerial post said.
An official of Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, said that many members of the party are likely to express worries over a general election under Suga’s leadership.
Opposition unity in doubt
In a speech in front of Nagano Station on Thursday, CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama sought voter support for the party’s candidate in the local by-election.
Opposition parties are planning to field joint candidates in the next Lower House election, with CDP leader Yukio Edano calling the three parliamentary polls on April 25 “precursors” to the general election.
But the CDP candidate in the Nagano race signed a policy accord including a review of the Japan-U.S. alliance with the Japanese Communist Party, angering the DPP and leading the party to temporarily withdraw its support for the candidate.
Following the development, it remains to be seen if and when DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki will visit Nagano to seek support for the CDP-fielded candidate, according to DPP sources.
Tamaki agreed to speak to voters in Hiroshima with Edano on Sunday, but on condition that he does not stand next to a JCP official.
CDP members are concerned over the situation, with one official saying, “There could be an impact on our cooperation in the Lower House election.”
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