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Editorial: Opposition parties need to develop key policy issues for elections

Two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) affiliated candidates won single-seat House of Representatives by-elections in Tokyo and Fukuoka Prefecture on Oct. 23 -- a candidate who ran on an LDP ticket secured victory in the Tokyo No. 10 district and a son of a late LDP bigwig won a seat in the Fukuoka No. 6 constituency. Both of these two seats were secured by the LDP in the 2014 lower house race. The opposition camp, which backed unified candidates for the by-elections, was unable to compete with the high-profile figures in the campaigns of the winning candidates.

The Tokyo No. 10 district seat was vacated by former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike when she ran for the Tokyo gubernatorial race. An LDP lawmaker who won a lower house proportional representation seat in the 2014 general election ran with an LDP ticket in the Oct. 23 by-election with endorsement by Koike herself, though the candidate earlier clashed with the LDP's Tokyo chapter for backing Koike in the governor race.

Koike has gained public support after winning the Tokyo race and demanding as governor reviews on the troubled Toyosu market and venue plans for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The LDP headquarters had no choice but to back the rebellious candidate in the by-election out of consideration for Koike's popularity.

The Fukuoka No. 6 constituency, meanwhile, was vacated by the death of former internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama. The LDP was split between Hatoyama's second son and a candidate backed by the LDP's Fukuoka prefectural chapter. After Hatoyama's win became certain, the party headquarters gave him post-election endorsement as a last-ditch measure.

While there is still a lingering bad aftertaste with Koike and her camp over the Tokyo governor race and conflicts within its local chapters, the LDP steadily secured the two seats thanks to the high name recognition of Koike and the late Hatoyama.

Instead, it was the opposition parties that were confronted with challenges. Although the two constituencies have traditionally been LDP safe seats, the by-election results exposed the limitations of the opposition camp's election strategy, which is to unify candidates centering on the largest opposition Democratic Party.

In the Niigata gubernatorial election on Oct. 16, the issue of restarting nuclear reactors in the prefecture became the main point of contention and an opposition candidate who had taken a cautious stance on the issue won, coming back from what was reported as a struggling campaign. The united front formed by the opposition camp proved fruitful in a race over the single issue of restarting nuclear reactors that was of great concern to independent voters.

The united front strategy taken by the opposition in single-seat constituencies in the July House of Councillors election accomplished certain results, too. In addition, strong disapproval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in the Tohoku region and other areas served opposition parties well.

In the Oct. 23 by-elections, however, the opposition camp could not repeat victories with the unified candidates. The Democratic Party attempted to differentiate its candidates from the LDP's by appealing to voters through issues such as the pension and education systems and by slamming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policy mix, dubbed "Abenomics," as a path to discard the vulnerable, only to lose both seats.

The latest election results underscored opposition parties' weakness. When it comes to simple issues that can attract independent voters, the united front proves to be powerful, but when it comes to elections with no policy issues appealing to the public, the opposition camp loses its momentum.

Behind the opposition camp's losing streak in national elections over the past few years is its lack of ability to develop key issues in such races. The latest election losses to the LDP certainly dealt a blow to opposition parties as the Democratic Party led the campaign.

It is essential for opposition parties to consider how they are going to work on united front strategies in preparation for the next lower house election. They will not manage to break Abe's dominance without mapping out policy issues that can counter the ruling coalition and by only using cooperation among other opposition parties to field enough candidates.

It is speculated that Abe will dissolve the lower house and call a snap election within 2017 -- even as early as January. Opposition parties need to speed up the process of rebuilding election strategies based on the results of the Niigata gubernatorial race and the latest by-elections. Meanwhile, the Abe administration should not become arrogant over the election results and remain humble in operating the government.

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