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Opposition struggles in bid to field joint candidates where only 1 seat up for grabs

In this Feb. 1, 2016, file photo, top officials of the Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, among others, raise their arms at a meeting where they confirmed a need to form a united front among opposition parties in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Tanoue)

TOKYO -- Little progress has been made in efforts by opposition parties to field joint candidates in constituencies where only one seat will be up for grabs in the summer 2019 House of Councillors election in a bid to beat the ruling bloc.

The delay bodes ill for the opposition camp because the results of the upper house election as a whole hinge largely on the outcome of such constituencies. In the previous 2016 upper house race, the four opposition parties, including the now defunct Democratic Party (DP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), won only in 11 districts even though they fielded joint candidates in all 32 such constituencies.

Having multiple candidates from the opposition side in single seat districts would often result in votes scattered among them and lower the chances of winning against contenders from the ruling camp.

A citizens group stages a rally calling for a united front among opposition parties in Chuo Ward, Kobe, in western Japan on May 21, 2016, while officials of opposition parties wave to passers-by from a campaign car. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Hisano)

Former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, who headed the DP at the time of the 2016 poll, underscores the need for a united front among opposition parties. "If the opposition camp wins about 20 constituencies where one seat is contested, it would serve as a no-confidence vote against the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe," says Okada.

To achieve this, the opposition must win at least nine more seats in such constituencies than in the previous election.

Those elected in 2013 are set to battle in the upcoming poll. In the 2013 election, the opposition bloc won in only two of such districts -- Iwate in northeastern Japan and the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. Of the two winners, however, former reconstruction minister Tatsuo Hirano will run in the Iwate district -- but on the ticket of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the upcoming election. Keiko Itokazu, who was elected from Okinawa, has declared that she will not seek re-election.

The LDP has selected candidates in all one-seat constituencies except for the eastern Japan district of Gunma and Okinawa. The LDP will field incumbents in 29 of the constituencies, and a freshman in Nagano in central Japan.

Therefore, finding joint candidates who can beat LDP incumbents is the key to victory for the opposition camp. But the opposition camp is slow in fielding such contenders, with the likelihood of doing so at this point in just two of the 11 one-seat districts they won three years ago.

The 11 districts are Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima in northeastern Japan, Niigata along the Sea of Japan coast, the central Japan districts of Yamanashi and Nagano, the western Japan constituency of Mie and the southern Japan districts of Oita and Okinawa.

Opposition parties have basically agreed to field joint candidates only in Oita and Okinawa. Meanwhile, the JCP has selected its candidates in five of the constituencies and opposition parties will compete with each other in two constituencies while they have not selected any candidates in two other districts.

In a TV program on Jan. 6 on public broadcaster NHK, Yukio Edano, leader of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), denied that the opposition camp's efforts to form a united front in the upcoming election are being delayed.

"Considering our experiences three years ago, our moves aren't being delayed. We can create a situation in which we can respond to opinions that the Abe government's further high-handedness mustn't be tolerated," he said. However, it is obvious that the opposition camp's efforts to unify their candidates are not progressing.

Still, at one-seat districts, prospects for candidates will drastically change if the public becomes critical of the administration. The governing coalition is worried about negative fallouts from a recent scandal in which the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry caused some 56.7 billion yen in unpaid social insurance benefits by using an inappropriate method of data collection for job statistics for many years. The LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito have to sail through rough waters in the upcoming ordinary session of the Diet, in which the opposition is eager to attack them over the problem affecting nearly 20 million people.

Under the circumstances, the LDP leadership instructed its legislators to intensify their outreach toward voters by holding small-scale meet-ups in at least three locations within the current fiscal year ending in March. Such gatherings were proposed by Sadakazu Tanigaki, who headed the LDP when it was an opposition party from 2009 through 2012.

The LDP is bent on helping its candidates in constituencies where one seat will be up for grabs, particularly those in which its contenders are feared to lose. "The possibility can't be ruled out that the party will be defeated in all such districts in the Tohoku district (northeastern Honshu)," said an individual linked to the LDP.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Odanaka and Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department)

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