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Opposition parties likely to tune strategy after defeat in Hokkaido by-election

Yoshiaki Wada, center, delivers a speech in Atsubetsu Ward, Sapporo, on April 24, 2016, after winning the House of Representatives by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency, as his wife Naoko holds a bouquet. (Mainichi)

The loss of an opposition-backed candidate in the April 24 by-election in Hokkaido is likely to force four opposition parties to review their strategy of fielding joint candidates as independents in the upcoming House of Councillors election.

Maki Ikeda, 43, supported by the Democratic Party (DP), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People's Life Party (PLP), lost to Yoshiaki Wada, 44, who ran on the ticket of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the House of Representatives by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency.

Wada took advantage of the organized support of the LDP to win the election, in which recently enacted security-related legislation and the "Abenomics" economic policy mix promoted by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were key points of contention.

DP Secretary-General Yukio Edano commented, "Our strategy was right, but we'd like to consider modifying our tactics."

The four opposition parties are trying to cooperate in fielding a joint candidate each in 32 upper house constituencies in which only one seat is up for grabs. As of April 24, they had reached a broad agreement to field a joint candidate each in 21 of these districts, while their negotiations were going on in nine other constituencies, according to a Mainichi Shimbun survey. Eleven of the candidates that the four parties have basically agreed to field in the 21 districts are independents.

Candidates officially endorsed by political parties under the Public Offices Election Act are generally regarded having better chances than independent candidates. Officially endorsed candidates can put up and distribute more posters and leaflets during the campaign period than independents can thanks to the quotas granted to the parties that endorse them. Additionally, only candidates officially endorsed by political parties can appear in TV election campaign broadcasts.

A senior DP member pointed out that Ikeda "lost momentum" toward the end of her campaign "because her public appearances through campaign broadcasts, posters and leaflets decreased." As such, whether one of the four parties should officially endorse their joint candidates in some constituencies in the upcoming upper house race will likely emerge as a key point of contention in their election strategy talks.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which has now merged into the DP, and the JCP won a total of about 126,000 votes in the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency in the lower house election in 2014, below the 131,000 votes cast for the late Nobutaka Machimura of the LDP, who served as lower house speaker.

As such, a senior DP official said, "Our candidate would've been no match for the LDP if we hadn't formed a united front with other opposition parties."

Akira Koike, head of the JCP secretariat, commented, "The outcome was regrettable, but we came very close to the ruling coalition candidate. The joint struggle between opposition parties has proven quite effective."

Even though the four opposition parties suffered a setback in their first joint struggle in a national election, no cracks appeared to have developed in their cooperative relationship.

The DP regained a seat in the lower house Kyoto No. 3 district in a by-election also held on April 24.

Kenta Izumi, 41, who won the election, said at his office, "The DP got off to a good start."

Izumi had been viewed as having the upper hand because he had higher name recognition and had achieved more than other candidates. Furthermore, the by-election was called to fill a seat vacated by Kensuke Miyazaki of the LDP, who had stepped down over an extramarital affair, so the LDP chose not to field a candidate.

However, the LDP has already selected a candidate it will field in the district in the next general election for the lower chamber. The JCP also intends to field its own candidate in the constituency.

The JCP is pursuing election cooperation with other opposition parties in the next lower house race. However, there is stiff opposition within the DP to joining hands with the JCP in the lower house election, which involves selecting a political party that will run the government.

As such, the JCP has declared that it will field its own candidates in lower house single-seat constituencies in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka in a bid to pressure the DP to enter talks on election cooperation in the next lower house race. If the two parties' talks become bogged down and they fail to produce an effective strategy, though, both parties could suffer defeats in many electoral districts.

Osaka Ishin no Kai (Initiatives from Osaka), performed weakly in the April 24 by-election in Kyoto, which was the first national election the party fought, considering that the party's leader and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura visited the electoral district on a daily basis to call for support for the Initiatives from Osaka candidate.

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