Abe's Party Wins Tight By-Election in Test for Japan Summer Vote

  • Collaboration by opposition fails to deliver Hokkaido seat
  • Prospects of summer general election seen fading after quakes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party won a closely fought by-election on the northern island of Hokkaido on Sunday, in an early indication of voter sentiment ahead of an upper house election expected in July.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s 44-year-old candidate Yoshiaki Wada, a former trading company employee, won 135,842 votes, compared with 123,517 for Maki Ikeda, 43, an independent backed by the main opposition Democratic Party. The election was held to replace Nobutaka Machimura, a former foreign minister who died last year after a stroke.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday the win indicated approval of the Abe administration’s efforts to strengthen the economy.

Abe faces an upper house election by late July and aides have said the Hokkaido result would be a factor in his decision on whether to call a simultaneous election in the more powerful lower house at the same time. While his support has held steady in recent opinion polls, the need to oversee recovery from a recent series of large earthquakes in southwest Japan may sway Abe against holding a general election.

"They are in no position to hold a general election," said independent political analyst Hirotada Asakawa. "I think the tide is turning away from a ‘double’ election’." Abe would need to make a final decision before the Group of Seven summit at the end of May, Asakawa added.

Abe’s coalition holds a majority in both houses of the parliament. He scored a solid victory in his previous general election in December 2014, and need not call another election until 2018. Nevertheless, some analysts have said they expect him to go to the polls in the summer, citing preparatory moves such as the distribution of allowances to people on low pensions.

The Hokkaido by-election was the first test of an unusual tie-up between the DP and the Japanese Communist Party, which did not field its own candidate, instead urging supporters to vote for Ikeda. Polls show limited support for the new grouping. A survey conducted by the broadcaster NTV April 15-17 found about 41 percent of respondents planned to vote for the LDP in the coming upper house election, compared with 14 percent for the DP and 6 percent for the Communists.

Wada, the son-in-law of the previous incumbent, was also supported by Abe’s coalition partner Komeito. The DP won a separate by-election in the ancient capital of Kyoto the same day, in which the LDP did not field a candidate after their previous representative in the district resigned over a scandal.

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