The upcoming by-elections in two House of Representatives constituencies are crucial to a decision on whether to dissolve the chamber for a snap general election to coincide with the upcoming House of Councillors race.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that chose not to field a candidate in the Kyoto No. 3 constituency is trying by all means to win a by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 district. In the meantime, the newly formed opposition Democratic Party (DP) is trying to win in both constituencies in an effort to gain momentum.
As such, the outcome of the by-elections in these two of 295 single-seat constituencies in the lower house is significant. Voters in these constituencies will go to the polls on April 24.
The outcome of a survey conducted by a news organization on the election campaigns in the Hokkaido No. 5 electoral district sparked debate in the political world earlier this month.
The results suggest that Maki Ikeda, an independent supported by the DP and other opposition parties, was gaining more support than LDP-backed Yoshiaki Wada.
Observations that "the sampling method (in the survey) appears not to have been fair" spread within the LDP, suggesting that the party is sensitive about the by-election.
The by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 district will be called to fill the vacancy as a result of the death of former lower house Speaker Nobutaka Machimura. Wada is Machimura's son-in-law. Initially, Wada was believed to have a better chance of winning in what is viewed as a "condolence election."
However, scandals and gaffes involving Cabinet ministers and LDP legislators are changing the situation.
"There is severe criticism of what's viewed as the Abe government's arrogance and slackness," said a senior member of the LDP.
LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said no optimism is warranted about the by-election. "It's a seesaw struggle. We can't be negligent," he said.
Even if the LDP is to suffer a setback in the by-election, the party would have no problem in steering the legislature since it occupies 291 out of the chamber's 475 seats, including those allocated to proportional representation blocs.
However, the results of by-elections have often determined the fate of the government. The LDP lost an April 2008 by-election in the lower house's Yamaguchi No. 2 constituency, in which the unpopular medical insurance program for the elderly aged 75 or over was a key point of contention. The government of then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda stepped down in September of that year.
Moreover, the outcome of the upcoming by-elections could affect the timing of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision on whether and when he will dissolve the lower house for a snap general election.
If the LDP is to lose the Hokkaido poll, the situation would be complex. Most LDP legislators believe that in such a case, the prime minister would not call double elections of both chambers of the Diet.
However, there are also observations within the party that a loss would spark calls among upper house members for double elections to enhance the ruling coalition's chances of winning. "If we are to lose in the No. 5 constituency, we could lose in many upper house constituencies in which only one seat is up for grabs, like a domino phenomenon," says a senior LDP member of the upper chamber.
At the end of last year, Prime Minister Abe asked Muneo Suzuki, leader of the Hokkaido regional party Shinto Daichi, to support Wada in the electoral district. The move was aimed at causing a split in the alliance between opposition parties, helping Wada win the race and making it difficult for opposition parties to join hands in the upper house election.
However, the Wada camp feels uncomfortable about Shinto Daichi, which had long cooperated with the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ has joined hands with the Japan Innovation Party to form the DP.
"Our cooperation with Daichi is neither favorable nor disadvantageous to us," one former Cabinet minister said on April 8.
"It's really severe. Either side could win," Wada told about 50 of his supporters when he opened his campaign office in the village of Shinshinotsu.
The LDP has stepped up efforts to win support from companies and other organizations within the constituency. The prime minister is expected to visit the electoral district after the official campaign kicks off.
In the meantime, Ikeda took to the streets on April 9 with DP acting president Akira Nagatsuma in Ebetsu and other locations. "I'd like to realize politics that respects each and every single member of the public. The welfare of each citizen will lead to peace," Ikeda said in her speech.
Since public interest in child care and nursing care for elderly people is increasing following the appearance of a blog message titled, "Hoikuen ochita Nihon shine!!!" (My child wasn't accepted at a day care facility. Die Japan!!!")
"Our call for improvements in the welfare policy has gained sympathy from local voters," said a senior member of Ikeda's campaign team.
The by-elections will be a litmus test for election cooperation between opposition parties in the upper house race. Secretaries general of the DP, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party and the People's Life Party met in Tokyo on April 7 and agreed to hold joint election cooperation talks.
However, the DP is prudent about cooperating closely with the JCP because conservative members within the main opposition party are wary of Communists.
There are differences in basic policies between the four parties even though they agreed to seek to abolish the security-related legislation, which has opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way.
As such, DP leader Katsuya Okada will not visit the constituency on the day when the campaign period for the by-election kicks off, and will not deliver campaign speeches with the leaders of the three other opposition parties during that period.
One focal point in the campaign is whether the four parties' calls for abolition of the security legislation will gain sympathy from constituents as the cities of Chitose and Eniwa within the electoral district host Self-Defense Forces (SDF) bases and posts.
In a bid to gain support from local voters, Ikeda held a rally on April 10 with Aki Okuda, a key member of the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s (SEALDs) that is opposing the security legislation, and others, and highlighted problems involving the laws.