Was it COVID-19 that worked favorably for the incumbent governor? Was it because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party didn’t field a candidate? There could be many reasons why Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike won a second term in Sunday’s election.
It was unfortunate that the lackluster campaign failed to garner much public attention despite Tokyo being the nation’s capital. But the election result should not be easily dismissed as it has many implications for national politics. The lessons to be learned are not only for Tokyoites, but also for people nationwide.
The impact of the novel coronavirus on the election was huge. Koike refrained from making stump speeches and avoided public appearances. Other candidates followed suit. Heated policy debate among the candidates was scarce during the campaign period as Koike was often absent from the events organized by media organizations. As a result, media coverage of the campaign was far less than in the last gubernatorial election, and there were not enough opportunities for voters to learn about the candidates and their policies.
In this election, campaigning mainly took place in cyberspace. Expectations may have been high that online campaigning could reach younger voters, but in reality online searches for election-related content appears to have been limited to those with a keen interest in politics.
Koike frequently posted messages on social media, such as Instagram and YouTube, but many of her YouTube videos only attracted several thousand views each. It’s hard to say that she was successful in reaching a wider audience.
Since the pandemic is likely to continue for the coming months at least, candidates in subsequent elections will need to explore ways to deliver their policy messages without direct contact with voters and the media must step up their efforts to report on the campaigns and candidates’ policy differences so people can be better informed.
Voter turnout for the latest Tokyo race was 55 percent, down 4.73 percent from the previous election. Though the figure is still higher than most of the national elections in the past decade, nearly half the eligible voters in the nation’s capital didn’t cast ballots.
Political apathy clearly isn’t a phenomenon limited to Tokyo. Voter turnout in Diet elections has been declining. It dropped from a high of 70 percent in the 2009 Lower House election — which saw the opposition Democratic Party of Japan take power — to 53.68 percent in the 2017 general election. Efforts must be made to engage voters in the political process before the next national election.
The failure of the opposition parties to form a united front also contributed to Koike’s sweeping victory — a lesson that applies to future national elections.
The main interest of Tokyo voters was how to overcome the crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. According to an exit poll of 2,755 people by Asahi Shimbun, 64 percent responded favorably to Koike’s coronavirus countermeasures, and of those, 75 percent voted for her. On the other hand, 34 percent did not approve of the steps she took. Of them, 27 percent voted for Kenji Utsunomiya, the former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and 17 percent cast ballots for Taisuke Ono, a former vice governor of Kumamoto Prefecture who was backed by Nippon Ishin no Kai. Koike clearly benefited from the divided opposition in addition to the advantage she enjoyed as the incumbent and the exposure she received from appearing on TV almost daily in recent months to give updates on the COVID-19 crisis.
In the political center of Nagatacho, many people speculate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may call a snap election as early as this fall. In preparing for this possibility, political parties must learn from the mistakes they made in the Tokyo gubernatorial race.
The Tokyo election campaign also failed to address many key problems that are equally important at the national level. For example, candidates expressed their opinions on the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, but didn’t discuss remedies for issues such as the need for more childcare facilities, ballooning social security costs, or how to bolster Tokyo’s once-ample reserve funds, which have been drained by the virus countermeasures taken over the past two months.
How to resuscitate the economy while protecting the public health is a matter that must be dealt with by political leaders on both the local and national level. Tokyo isn’t the only place where the population is rapidly aging, either. Political leaders need to hammer out measures to tackle these pressing issues, and voters must realize that they have the power to change the course of Japan.
The Japan Times Editorial Board