• Kyodo

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Voting got underway Sunday in by-elections to fill two vacant seats in the Diet, with the result being closely watched as a bellwether of public support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party ahead of next week’s general election.

The House of Councilors by-elections in Shizuoka and Yamaguchi prefectures are the first national contests since Kishida took office earlier this month promising to implement a “new capitalism” that puts the country on a growth track while redistributing wealth to the middle class.

Media polls for the Oct. 31 general election have suggested that the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, will retain their majority in the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower chamber.

Kishida has said such an outcome would be enough to claim victory as he seeks a mandate to implement his COVID-19 and economic policies.

But the LDP faces the prospect of losing seats as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition forces have set aside their differences to consolidate candidates across hundreds of voting districts.

With many voters saying they are still undecided on who to cast ballots for in the general election, the result of Sunday’s upper house by-elections may provide clues to which party is gathering the most support.

In Shizuoka, polls indicate a close race between LDP candidate Yohei Wakabayashi, a former mayor of Gotemba, and Shinnosuke Yamazaki, an independent running with the backing of the CDP and the Democratic Party for the People.

“This is a challenging race, and I’m asking for your support to get through it,” Kishida said in a stump speech in Shizuoka on Thursday. “I need you to give (Wakabayashi) one last push.”

Wakabayashi, 49, had a slight lead over Yamazaki, a former prefectural assembly member, heading into the homestretch, with Chika Suzuki, 50, of the Japanese Communist Party unexpected to go far.

In a stump speech for Yamazaki, 40, on Friday, CDP leader Yukio Edano criticized the LDP-led government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling for “a change in the political direction” of the nation.

The result of the by-election in Yamaguchi may be slightly more predictable, with the LDP’s Tsuneo Kitamura having a heavy advantage in the conservative stronghold in western Japan.

The former parliamentary vice industry minister already had an Upper House seat via proportional representation but gave it up to run in the single-member district.

The seat the 66-year-old Kitamura aims to fill was vacated by Yoshimasa Hayashi, a former education minister allied with Kishida, to run in the general election.

The Yamaguchi race is also being contested by the JCP’s Kiyo Kawai, 61, a former prefectural assembly member, and 30-year-old Shota Harada, more widely known as YouTuber Hezumaryu. However, neither is expected to pose a serious threat to Kitamura.

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