An Upper House vote in Hiroshima on April 25, one of three by-elections taking place that day, has turned into a crucial race for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the ruling coalition.

A vote-buying scandal that forced the resignation of the previous representative, Anri Kawai, has rocked the local political establishment and sparked voter anger, putting the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito on the defensive and giving the opposition hopes of victory.

Kawai was found guilty in January of vote-buying in the 2019 Upper House election and resigned her seat in early February. Her husband, Katsuyuki Kawai, a Lower House member who also represents a Hiroshima district, is a former justice minister who has been charged in the vote-buying scandal as well. After arguing he was innocent, he admitted in late March that he had attempted to buy votes in the 2019 election for his wife.

Katsuyuki Kawai submitted his resignation on April 1. Under the public elections law, however, a by-election for a Lower House seat does not have to be held. A general election for the Lower House must take place by October.

In the Hiroshima Upper House by-election, the ruling parties are pinning their hopes on Hidenori Nishita, 39, a former trade ministry bureaucrat who worked at the Agency for Natural Resources and was a visiting fellow at Stanford University. Nishita, in addition to apologizing for the Kawai scandal, is emphasizing the need for a localized economic policy to deal with the coronavirus, along with his connections to the central government.

“I accept that there’s a wind blowing against us. But I want to make Hiroshima Japan’s leading place for fair politics and economic recovery,” Nishita said Thursday, the day the campaign kicked off.

Nishita’s fate in the election may also determine the political fortunes of former foreign minister and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who lost the party’s presidential race to Suga last year. Kishida continues to covet the post, and may run again this autumn. But as head of the Hiroshima prefectural chapter of the LDP, his first task is to get Nishita elected.

“A loss in Hiroshima would mean a complete loss of power for Kishida and he would not likely run in the next presidential election,” said political journalist Tetsuo Suzuki.

People listen to a candidate's speech in Hiroshima on Thursday. | KYODO
People listen to a candidate’s speech in Hiroshima on Thursday. | KYODO

But Nishita will have to conduct his campaign without the physical presence of many ruling party officials and without visits by senior LDP figures such as Suga. That is not only because the Kawai scandal has tainted party members, making them targets of criticism if they appeared with Nishita, but also due to Suga’s busy political schedule — the prime minister makes his first trip to Washington later this week and then has a two-day climate summit starting April 22.

Komeito’s voters are also angry about the Kawai scandal and Komeito members will have to be careful in how they campaign for Nishita.

“On paper, the LDP and Komeito have the numbers to win the election. But the Kawai scandal has spread to dozens of local Hiroshima prefectural assembly members, who will not be able to aggressively campaign for the ruling-party backed candidate,” Suzuki says.

Sensing they could win in Hiroshima, long a bastion of the LDP, opposition parties have rallied around Haruko Miyaguchi, 45, a former television announcer. She’s backed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the Democratic Party for the People and the Social Democratic Party.

“We’ve seen a massive vote-buying scandal here in Hiroshima, with those involved offering no explanation, talking about it as if it were someone else’s problem. In this election, it is critical to say ‘no’ to this kind of money politics,” Miyaguchi said during an April 8 stump speech.

Winning in Hiroshima is especially crucial for the ruling parties because they face an even bigger uphill struggle in the other two by-elections taking place on April 25. In Nagano Prefecture, Yutaka Komatsu, 59, is the ruling-party backed candidate. He faces Jiro Hata, 51, officially endorsed by the CDP and supported by the other major opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party.

People listen to a candidate's speech in Nagano on Thursday. | KYODO
People listen to a candidate’s speech in Nagano on Thursday. | KYODO

Opposition parties have traditionally done well in Nagano and Hata is running to replace his brother Yuichiro Hata, who died last December from COVID-19. Suzuki predicts it will be very difficult for the ruling parties to win there, as sympathy votes will go to the younger Hata.

Due to yet another scandal, the LDP decided not to even field a candidate in the third by-election, a Lower House race in Hokkaido. That election was forced after former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa, a close Suga ally, resigned amidst allegations he had received bribes from an egg farm company.

With no one running in Hokkaido and little confidence they will win in Nagano, Hiroshima has become the main hope for the ruling parties as they look ahead to a Lower House general election later this year.

“Where once the LDP might have automatically expected three by-election victories, they’ll be relieved to just get one this time,” Suzuki said.

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