The Liberal Democratic Party candidate’s victory in the Lower House by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency on Sunday may embolden Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition ahead of the Upper House race this summer. The close race in the first Diet election since the 2014 general election of the Lower House should also remind the opposition camp that campaign cooperation will be the only viable way to compete with Abe’s dominant ruling bloc. The Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party will need to quickly review Sunday’s outcome and rebuild their strategy for the Upper House election.
The Hokkaido by-election to fill the vacancy left by the death of LDP veteran and former Lower House Speaker Nobutaka Machimura last year was seen as a test of voter sentiments ahead of the triennial Upper House race, which will likely be held in July. As the LDP was unable to field a candidate in the Kyoto by-election also held Sunday after its member resigned over an extramarital affair, a defeat in the Hokkaido race could have dealt a severe blow to the Abe administration.
It was the first major electoral test for the Democratic Party after its merger with Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) last month, and the race also served as a test case for the campaign cooperation that opposition parties are pursuing for the Upper House election to challenge Abe’s ruling alliance. The JCP withdrew its candidate earlier this year to throw its support behind an independent also backed by the Democratic Party and two other opposition forces.
The LDP’s Yoshiaki Wada, Machimura’s son-in-law, won with 135,842 votes against 123,517 cast for the opposition-backed Maki Ikeda in Sunday’s race. Wada is believed to have solidified organized support for the party and won more votes than Machimura did in his last election in 2014. Ikeda’s votes meanwhile fell short of the votes won by the then Democratic Party of Japan and JCP candidates combined in the previous race. The opposition forces will need to examine if their joint campaign worked as they had planned.
But the result also seems to point to the obvious — that the opposition parties would have been no match against the LDP-Komeito alliance had they split their votes by separately fielding their own candidates. Since the DPJ’s crushing fall from power in 2012, the splintered opposition camp has been dwarfed by Abe’s ruling bloc in both Diet proceedings and national elections. It’s about time that the opposition forces learned this lesson and came up with an effective strategy.
The opposition parties are indeed stepping up campaign cooperation for the Upper House election with the same formula as used in the Hokkaido race. In the 32 constituencies where one seat each is up for grabs in the election this summer, the JCP has so far reportedly agreed to withdraw its candidates in more than a dozen districts to pave way for a sole opposition candidate to challenge the LDP-Komeito alliance. The race in such constituencies hold the key to the overall election results — the LDP swept the seats contested in 29 of 31 such electoral districts in its landslide win in the last Upper House race in 2013. But the 2013 results show that the opposition parties combined won more votes than the LDP in some of these constituencies — suggesting that they may either outperform or put up a close race against the ruling bloc if they do not split their votes among themselves.
The LDP lashes out against such efforts by the opposition parties as an unprincipled political union — and points its fingers at key policy differences between the JCP and the other opposition forces. Indeed, the opposition parties have not come up with a common set of policy platform for their planned campaign cooperation. Concern also remains within the Democratic Party that the campaign tie-up with the JCP will alienate the party’s conservative supporters. The Hokkaido by-election results should give the opposition parties a chance to assess how voters are reacting to their campaign cooperation.
The Hokkaido race was earlier seen as a watershed for Prime Minister Abe’s possible decision to dissolve the Lower House for another snap election — simultaneously with the Upper House race — to bolster the chances for his ruling bloc. But the likelihood of Abe holding the snap election are believed to have receded because the administration needs to prioritize dealing with the extensive damage caused by a series of powerful earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture. Sunday’s victory was not an easy win for the LDP. The prime minister should weigh the results to sort out his political priorities and focus on the most pressing issues facing the nation.
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