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Election roundup: Poll pits new parties against longtime Abe administration

People listen to a campaign speech in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on Oct. 10, 2017, as general election campaigning got under way the same day. (Mainichi)

Campaigning for the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election kicked off on Oct. 10, with its focus centering on a three-way battle between the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, the conservative opposition force comprising the Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), and the liberal opposition alliance of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

In essence, the election battle has pitted the newly founded Party of Hope and CDP against the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the two parties vying for voters critical of his longtime regime.

*Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga delivered a campaign speech on Oct. 10 in the Tokyo No. 16 constituency in Edogawa Ward, a fierce battleground where three candidates -- former legislators of the LDP, the Party of Hope and the CDP -- are competing for a lower house seat.

"The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) has vanished and greatly changed its flagship policy into one (in support of Japan's security legislation). Isn't this what is called a black box?" Suga said in addressing local residents, criticizing the Party of Hope, into which the DP has decided to effectively merge.

Suga also lashed out at the CDP, saying its leader Yukio Edano and other members held key positions in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, then head of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). "The (CDP) members are completely the same as those in the Kan administration, when Japan's economic and foreign policies faltered," Suga said.

The ruling coalition is wary of the two new parties' moves to get a boost from voters critical of the Abe administration. "The new boom (of creating parties) will produce nothing," Abe said time and again.

The prime minister has set an election victory line for the ruling coalition at 233 -- or just over half of the 465-seat lower chamber. At a party leaders' debate organized by the Japan National Press Club on Oct. 8, Abe stated that if the LDP and Komeito won a majority in the election, he would come forward as a candidate for the Diet nomination for prime minister.

Even if the LDP loses 80 or more seats from its pre-election strength of 284, it would be able to reach that victory line if the seats won by Komeito are combined. However, if the LDP suffers a significant loss of seats, frustrations over Abe would grow among party members, casting a shadow over the post-election steering of his administration.

According to informed sources, the LDP's most recent survey forecasted that the party would lose 40 to 50 seats -- a figure that would barely allow the party to secure a single-party majority. Observers say whether the party can maintain its single-party majority will be a yardstick in foreseeing Abe's post-election status.

The LDP has sent its high-profile members -- Deputy Chief Secretary-General Shinjiro Koizumi, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba -- to constituencies where seats are closely contested between the ruling coalition and opposition forces, in order to appeal to anti-Abe voters for support of the prime minister.

Komeito, which closely cooperated with Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First party) effectively led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, calls for maintaining the ruling coalition in the general election. Behind the move lies the fact that the Party of Hope, which is led by Koike, decided not to field its candidates in nine single-seat constituencies where Komeito candidates are running in the lower house race.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said during a campaign speech in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, on Oct. 10, "Even though they created the CDP, its history is traced back to the DP. I wonder if they reflect on the DPJ's fiasco in managing the government." Yamaguchi also blasted the CDP and the Party of Hope during a television program of public broadcaster NHK that evening.

Komeito is seeking to win in all single-seat constituencies where it has fielded candidates, as well as acquire at least 26 proportional representation seats.

*Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin

The Party of Hope has clarified its points of contention with the Abe government in its campaign for the general election in a bid to attract votes from those critical of the administration.

Party of Hope head Yuriko Koike leads its election campaign as a symbol of the party while serving as Tokyo governor.

Koike has not clarified who will be the party's candidate for prime minister while emphasizing that the lower house poll is an election in which voters will choose a political party to run the government. How to explain this inconsistency will pose a challenge to Koike and her party.

In an NHK program on the night of Oct. 10, Koike put up a board saying, "Election to reset Abe's predominance," and criticized the Abe administration over his favoritism scandal involving a school operator run by a close friend and for failing to fully disclose relevant information on the matter.

In her first campaign speech in front of Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo, Koike said, "We'll put an end to politics in which Abe is predominant."

The Party of Hope's election strategy is to garner votes from those critical of Prime Minister Abe, including conservatives, as the party believes that the general public is sick and tired of his longtime rule.

The Party of Hope is backing many candidates from the DP in a bid to secure the human resources and support base of the disintegrating opposition party, as well as gain support from not only conservative voters but a broader range of members of the public.

However, after the Party of Hope refused to endorse some candidates who had intended to run on the ticket of the DP, particularly liberals, those shunned by the Party of Hope founded the CDP that could also garner support from those critical of the Abe government.

Since the Party of Hope's failure to rule out the possibility of forming a coalition government with the LDP following the election has given rise to some public distrust, the party is unlikely to fully attract anti-government votes.

The party relies heavily on Koike, who led Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First party), a local party, to win the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, for its campaigning for the general election.

Koike delivered campaign speeches at six locations in Tokyo on Oct. 10 alone, while emphasizing that she would never sacrifice her official duty as Tokyo governor.

Still, the Party of Hope does not have the foundations to support its leader. The newly established opposition force has not yet even appointed a secretary-general. Many former lower house members who played an important role in founding the party have no choice but to concentrate on their election campaigns. The party does not have enough human resources to lead its campaigning.

The Party of Hope appointed former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Shinji Tarutoko, who is listed top in the roster of its candidates in the Kinki proportional representation bloc, as head of its election strategy office on Oct. 9. He supervises party business at its headquarters, while other senior members are away for campaigning.

Meanwhile, Nippon Ishin is putting its energy intensively into its efforts to win in constituencies in Osaka Prefecture, its stronghold. The party agreed with the Party of Hope to prevent their candidates from competing against each other in the same constituencies. Under the accord, Nippon Ishin did not put up candidates in any single-seat constituency in Tokyo.

Nippon Ishin does not have a big enough support base in Tokyo, while the Party of Hope has failed to gain enough support in Osaka.

Therefore, the two parties' strategy of supporting each other's candidates in these regions will unlikely create a synergy effect.

*The Japanese Communist Party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and the Social Democratic Party

The JCP, CDP and SDP have agreed to field a single candidate in nearly 250 single-seat constituencies across the country to combat the ruling coalition as a united front of opposition forces. Since the Party of Hope remains vague about its plan on the framework of the government after the general election, the three parties are branding themselves as true opposition forces to win support from those critical of the current administration.

The three parties have been working in sync to attack the Abe administration and ruling coalition over an attempt to revise Article 9 of the Constitution as well as three sets of controversial legislation passed under the government of Prime Minister Abe. The legislation is the security-related laws, the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, known as the special state secrets law, and the so-called "anti-conspiracy" law in which the Act for Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds was revised to criminalize "preparatory acts to commit organized crimes such as terrorism" by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy.

CDP head Edano slammed the Abe administration over the handling of the three sets of legislation, telling the audience in his speech on the streets of Sendai, "The Abe government didn't even bother to explain (about the legislation) when the people voiced opposition. How can this be a true democracy when those in power occupying many seats in the Diet can do whatever they want?"

In the House of Councillors election in 2016, the DP, JCP, SDP and the then People's Life Party cooperated to field a single opposition candidate in a number of single-seat electoral districts and succeeded to some extent in defeating candidates from the ruling parties and other forces. The JCP, SDP and CDP have taken over this framework and look to repeat the upper house race achievement.

While the three parties have agreed on forming the united front, however, the emergence of the Party of Hope hindered the opposition forces to unite. In Tokyo's No. 7 constituency, it had effectively been a two horse race between former health minister Akira Nagatsuma hailing from the DP and LDP member Fumiaki Matsumoto, but the state of affairs in the district has changed drastically after the birth of the Party of Hope. After Nagatsuma announced his candidacy from Edano's CDP instead of joining the Party of Hope, the latter endorsed former Kumamoto Prefectural Assembly member Akihiro Araki to run in the constituency, making the race a three-cornered battle.

While the Party of Hope is critical of the Abe administration, the newly established party has not denied the possibility of forming a coalition with the LDP after the election. Edano, on the other hand, has made it clear that his party is not aiming to hold the reins of government this time. By emphasizing its position as an opposition force, the CDP separates itself from the Party of Hope -- another force critical of the current administration -- and aims to win votes from those who are unwilling to support either the ruling coalition or Koike's party.

JCP Chairman Kazuo Shii on Oct. 10 said the Party of Hope is "not different from the LDP on its core policies," pointing out that the party approves of the security-related legislation, discussions on revisions to the Constitution's Article 9 and restarting nuclear reactors. He added, "It's clear that the (hope) party is a complementary force to the LDP. This election is not a three-bloc battle, but its true picture is a two-bloc face-off between the LDP-Komeito coalition with its supplementary forces and the united front of citizens and the opposition."

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