BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
SAPPORO – As campaigning for the Oct. 31 general election enters the final stretch, a pre-election agreement between the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party to rally around unified candidates in as many districts as possible is facing tough questions about its effectiveness.
One of the constituencies where the two parties agreed not run against each other — so as not to split the opposition vote — is the Hokkaido No. 4 district. Centered around western Sapporo, the port city of Otaru and the mountain resort of Niseko, the district is considered a test case for how the CDP-JCP agreement will work in the rest of the nation.
The district also encompasses small towns and villages along the coast of the Sea of Japan. That includes Suttsu, where voters on Tuesday re-elected a mayor who favors applying for central government funds related to an official scientific study for a nuclear waste storage facility.
In Hokkaido No. 4, the two parties have agreed to support the CDP’s Kureha Otsuki, a 38-year-old former Fuji TV political reporter who covered politics and has good connections in the political world.
“Otsuki’s experience as a reporter means that she knows a lot about the political situation. We need politicians like her who will bring fresh ideas about issues ranging from economic assistance to people hit hard by the coronavirus, as well as a woman’s perspective that will benefit both men and women,” CDP veteran Renho said in a campaign speech in Otaru on Wednesday.
Renho and Otsuki criticized former Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso at the event, after he had commented Monday that Hokkaido rice was now “tastier” due to climate change. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was forced to apologize on television for the comment, saying it wasn’t appropriate.
“Climate change is an international problem, and here in Hokkaido, it’s been warm for October. Changing weather patterns also meant heavier-than-normal rains in Hokkaido this summer. That had a negative impact on the potato crop,” Otsuki said in her stump speech.
“The key to combating climate change is natural energy and renewable energy sources, especially geothermal energy and hydropower, and there is a lot of potential power here in Hokkaido,” she added, promising to press the government for increased funding of both energy sources if elected.
The speech drew applause from CDP supporters in the crowd. But although Otsuki is a unified candidate, no JCP officials provided stump speeches on her behalf.
Kentaro Yamamoto, a professor at Hokkai-Gakuen University who has written extensively on Japan’s party politics, says that although Hokkaido’s No. 2 district, which includes two Sapporo wards, also has a unified CDP-JCP candidate in the race, there are several important differences with the No. 4 district.
“There was a difference in the timing of the cooperation between the CDP and JCP. In the No. 2 district, there was a by-election in April 2021 — joint cooperation in this district was established at that time,” he said.
But, he added, in the No. 4 district, the JCP withdrew its candidate on Oct. 13, just before the general election (campaign) kicked off on Oct. 19.
“Therefore, while (the CDP’s Kenko) Matsuki has been able to penetrate the support base of the JCP in the No. 2 district, and has an advantage in the race, Otsuki is a new candidate in No. 4 and she has not been able to fully get supporters of the JCP.”
Yamamoto said that there are also differences in the strength of the LDP candidates. For example, Yusuke Takahashi, who is running in the No. 2 district, is a newcomer, while Hiroyuki Nakamura, the incumbent in No. 4, is a veteran legislator who serves as state minister in charge of agriculture.
Otsuki appears to be concentrating her efforts on the populated, urban sections of the No. 4 district such as Otaru and western Sapporo, where her support base is located. She offered some words of criticism on Wednesday about the idea of a long-term nuclear waste storage facility in more distant Suttsu, nearly a four hour bus ride from Sapporo with no train connections.
Suttsu-based Koichi Jin, who opposes the facility and supported the losing mayoral candidate, said that while Nakamura came to Suttsu a few times, Otsuki appears to have spent less time there.
“I’d say that this area leans toward the LDP by about a 2-to-1 ratio,” Jin said before the Suttsu mayoral election.
According to Masato Kamikubo, a political scientist at Ritsumeikan University, campaign cooperation has been tough nationwide.
“Some JCP votes will move to the CDP. But uniting each party’s organization is quite difficult due to longstanding ideological differences over things like security-related revisions to the constitution, which the JCP strongly opposes,” he says.
Kamikubo predicts that the opposition parties will pick up perhaps 20 or 30 seats on Sunday. He does not expect — and no media polls currently show — that the CDP- and JCP-led opposition parties will win enough seats to supplant the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition.
In Hokkaido, Otsuki said Wednesday she knew she faced a tough campaign. Local media polls earlier this week were predicting a slight lead for Matsuki in the No. 2 race, while Otsuki was locked in a tight contest in the No. 4 district, and might have possibly fallen behind.
But she added Wednesday that Nakamura was a veteran LDP member and she was a political newcomer. For Otsuki, the mere fact that some media were saying the race was still tight just four days before the election was good news.
“When I look at how far the campaign has come since we began, it’s clear a growing number of people want change,” she said.