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LDP reaping benefits of fragmented opposition: Mainichi election campaign analysis

(Mainichi)

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is reaping the benefits of a fragmented opposition slate for the upcoming general election, Mainichi Shimbun analysis of the ongoing campaign has revealed.

Meanwhile, the new liberal-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) is steadily attracting support from those critical of the LDP and the Party of Hope, a newly formed conservative opposition party formed recently by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. The CDP's election prospects are also getting a boost from coordination with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), with the opposition forces agreeing on backing single candidates to increase the chances of defeating ruling party members in single-seat constituencies.

LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida told reporters on Oct. 15, "We don't feel we're not getting such a good response from voters. I think voters also doubt news reports that the ruling bloc is so strong," referring to recent poll results showing his party looks likely to score a landslide victory in the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election. His view was shared by another LDP member and former Cabinet member, who told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I don't think we're in such a favorable position."

A ruling party member is in a head-to-head fight with just one opposition candidate in only 56 of the 289 single-seat constituencies across Japan. This opposition fragmentation in such a large majority of constituencies has been a lifeline for LDP candidates whom even those within the party had thought would have a tough time at the ballot box.

For example, an LDP candidate is leading polls in the Tokyo No. 16 constituency despite resigning as vice head of the party's Tokyo chapter after declaring that "cancer patients needn't work." This candidate is benefitting from an apparent split in the opposition vote, between Party of Hope supporters and those backing the CDP.

One senior LDP member said it was "thanks to Ms. Koike and Mr. Maehara" -- referring Seiji Maehara, leader of the disintegrating Democratic Party (DP) -- that the opposition's united front had collapsed, opening the way to what could be a third consecutive LDP landslide general election win.

Maehara decided to disband his party shortly before the election and effectively merge it with the Party of Hope. However, many of former DP members -- particularly liberals who shunned or were passed over by Koike's party -- established the CDP.

Still, the Abe government has not gained solid support from the general public. Opinion polls by various news organizations show that more people disapprove of the Abe Cabinet than support it. In a Mainichi Shimbun poll in September, 36 percent of respondents supported the Abe Cabinet, well below 42 percent who disapproved.

According to a source close to the LDP, many of its prefectural chapters are asking the party headquarters to dispatch Chief Deputy Secretary-General Shinjiro Koizumi, a popular legislator, and other senior officials rather than Prime Minister Abe to stump for local LDP candidates.

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda apologized during an Oct. 15 speech in Sapporo over a rash of scandals involving LDP members, saying, "We must take our loss of voter support due to misconduct and inappropriate acts seriously, and deeply reflect on the problems."

A senior member of governing coalition partner Komeito expressed concerns over what the politician called the administration's "arrogance." As an example, the Komeito member pointed out that LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai had recently told an audience at one of his campaign speeches to "shut up."

"I hope his remark won't be viewed as equivalent to the 'people like this' comment" -- a reference to Prime Minister Abe's declaration during the July Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election that "we cannot lose to people like this," made in response to audience chants demanding he step down.

Komeito is urgently seeking more votes in the proportional representation blocs. Even though Komeito has a high chance of winning in nine single-seat constituencies, the party's share of proportional representation seats may sink. The total number of seats in four proportional representation blocs has been cut by one each. Moreover, Komeito fears that many of those who have voted for the party in proportional representation blocs may choose to cast their ballots for the Party of Hope and the CDP in the upcoming general election.

People listen to an election candidate's speech on a rainy Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 in Osaka's Sumiyoshi Ward. (Mainichi, image partially modified)

"We face an uphill battle in the Tohoku, northern Kanto, Kyushu and Kinki blocs," Noritoshi Ishida, head of Komeito's Policy Research Council, said during a TV program on public broadcaster NHK.

The Party of Hope, meanwhile, is struggling to gain support in single-seat constituencies. In electoral districts where multiple opposition candidates are running, anti-government voters are likely to split into those supporting the Party of Hope and those in favor of the CDP, giving the LDP the upper hand.

In 177 single-seat constituencies, a ruling coalition candidate is battling multiple opposition rivals; one backed by the conservative alliance of the Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), and another by the liberal opposition bloc comprising the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the CDP, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The ruling coalition has a lead in 137 of these districts, while Hope is on top in 14 and the CDP-JCP-SDP alliance is ahead in 13.

The Party of Hope endorsed erstwhile DP candidates on condition that they support constitutional revisions plus security legislation passed in December 2015 that opened the way for Japan's exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Because of this move, the JCP, a staunch opponent of these controversial initiatives, has made an active effort to field rivals against the Party of Hope, while coordinating with the CDP on candidates. This has left the Party of Hope caught between the ruling coalition rock and the liberal opposition alliance hard place, unable to garner much support from voters on either side.

Former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, a former DP legislator who is running on the Party of Hope ticket, said, "We can't do anything about other parties' moves, such as the formation of a united front between the CDP and the JCP."

The Party of Hope is facing setbacks even on Gov. Koike's home turf in Tokyo. Her party is running candidates in 23 of the capital's 25 single-seat constituencies, and is competing with the CDP in 15 of those. However, the party is trailing in every one of those 23 constituencies, behind either the ruling bloc or the liberal opposition.

Masaru Wakasa, a close Koike aide, is in a tough battle against the LDP's Hayato Suzuki, the CDP's Yosuke Suzuki and the JCP's Yoshinobu Kishi in the Tokyo No. 10 electoral district, where Koike had previously been elected to the lower house. Had the opposition fielded just one candidate there, the electoral calculus would be considerably different.

The Party of Hope relies largely on Koike's name recognition to garner voter support. Koike came under fire for refusing to endorse former DP members if they did not support her basic policies, adversely affecting Party of Hope candidates' chances of winning in single-seat districts.

Furthermore, the party is not sufficiently prepared for the campaign because it was founded just before the election. One single-seat constituency candidate seeking re-election in Tokyo said they put up 10 of their campaign posters themselves because they don't have enough volunteers.

A Party of Hope founding member also seeking re-election said, "Many of our candidates in Tokyo are newcomers with no political experience. It's inevitable that they start campaigning late."

A source close to the LDP quipped sarcastically, "The Party of Hope views Tokyo as its territory. Their lack of support there is a result of backing just all sorts of newcomers as candidates."

Meanwhile, CDP coordination with the JCP and SDP looks likely to yield results in single-seat constituency battles where a single opposition candidate is facing off with a ruling party member. There are 56 such constituencies across Japan, and the recent Mainichi survey shows the opposition candidate leading in 13 of them.

Of note, not one of the poll-topping opposition candidates in those 56 constituencies belongs to the conservative Party of Hope or Nippon Ishin.

Nevertheless, "we are not celebrating. We want to fight this election with humility," CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters at an Oct. 15 news conference.

However, one source close to the CDP told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Whether we can win 50 seats will make a big difference to how much influence we have in the Diet. So we want to widen our support base." The comment revealed sharply expanded expectations, as the freshly formed CDP only occupied 15 seats in the lower house before the election call.

The CDP is running candidates in 63 constituencies, and is in a one-on-one struggle with a ruling party member in 15 of those. In one such district -- the Niigata No. 1 constituency -- the JCP has withdrawn its candidate to give the CDP a clear field. The impact on the race there has been remarkable, with the CDP candidate polling ahead of the LDP member in a battle of incumbent lawmakers. The same effect can be seen in Hokkaido as well, with CDP candidates leading those running on the LDP tickets in the No. 1 and 3 electoral districts.

One source close to the DP told the Mainichi, "It (the CDP) has become the best option for DP supporters who don't agree with the Party of Hope. It seems those people have moved en masse into the CDP camp." Meanwhile, a Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) executive commented, "The wind is blowing in the CDP's favor." A JCP executive added, "Things are going well in places where the CDP and we have decided on a single candidate. We've created a place where independents and liberals can put their vote."

However, it is only the CDP, JCP and SDP alliance that is coordinating on fielding single opposition candidates in individual constituencies.

"Before the DP ended up in its current state, when it was a given that the opposition parties would cooperate in the election, I thought the opposition had a chance to take about 100 seats from the ruling parties across Japan," the JCP executive said. Meanwhile, in proportional representation blocs with more than one opposition option, it looks very likely that the CDP will eat into the JCP vote. Support levels in such blocs, which drove up the JCP seat count in the 2014 general election, also now look uncertain.

The LDP's rosy election prospects "are down to the formation of the Party of Hope, which fractured the strength of the opposition parties," JCP secretariat head Akira Koike told the Mainichi. "I want us to move forward without wavering from our cooperative course with the CDP and SDP."

The SDP, meanwhile, looks like it has a strong chance of just one single constituency seat win, in Okinawa's No. 2 district. The party's proportional representation bloc prospects also don't look good, meaning the party has seen little to no benefit from cooperation with the JCP and CDP.

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