Yamaguchi Prefecture is known as the “conservative kingdom”. It has produced a disproportionately large number of Prime Ministers and other political leaders since its Edo precursor and daimyō fiefdom the Chōshū han became one of the two main players (the other was the Satsumahan, i.e. Kagoshima Prefecture) in the revolution that culminated in the Meiji Restoration. Of its four House of Representative electoral districts, the 2nd District includes Iwakuni, the city that plays host to a large US military presence. Until recently, the district was represented by Yoshihiko Fukuda from the LDP. Mr. Fukuda resigned his seat and ran successfully in February for mayor of Iwakuni against the DPJ-supported incumbent. A by-election will be held on April 27 to determine his HR successor. Today, on the first day of the official campaign period, Mr. Shigetarō Yamamoto from the LDP and Hideo Hiraoka from the DPJ filed for candidacy, both ex-national bureaucrats, as is so common in the provinces. Mr. Hiraoka in turn resigned from his HR seat, which he had received when he lost his 2nd District seat to Mr. Fukuda in the 2005 Koizumi landslide. Mr. Takashi Wada assumed the proportional seat under the Public Election Act.
So, you would think that the LDP has at least an even chance of retaining this seat, don’t you? Actually, I don’t think that the LDP candidate stands a chance. Here’s why:
First of all, the opposition has always done well in this district. They failed to take it in 1996, the first HR election under the new election system, but the two candidates from the New Frontier Party (led by Ichirō Ozawa, it included the Kōmeitō) and the Democratic Party (which later absorbed Mr. Ozawa’s people to form the current DPJ) together received 112,372 votes to the LDP winner’s 81,108*. In the 2000 election, Mr. Hiraoka, the DPJ candidate, defeated the incumbent by a healthy margin of 104,372 to 97,355. Three years later in 2003, he won more easily in a return match, 109,647 to 91,087. He did lose an extremely tight race to a newcomer in the 2005 Koizumi landslide, 104,322 to 103,734. Still, it is clear that even in the best of times, the LDP has had a hard time taking the 2nd District outright.
Second, the Communist Party is not fielding a candidate in the by-election. In the past four elections, The JCP candidates have taken in anywhere from 11,721 to 18,064 votes. There’s no way of telling how many of those voters are mere discontents ripe for the picking and not diehard communists, but the fact that Mr. Hiraoka is not only the better-recognized face but is also a well-established member of the DPJ left should help to attract the usual protest votes. Remember, in 2005, if only a few hundred of the people who voted for the JCP candidate had gone over to Mr. Hiraoka, the DPJ would have kept that seat through the Koizumi landslide. Fighting to regain his seat, there’s every reason to believe that he could do just as well, all by himself.
Speaking of the protest vote, it is to be remembered that Mr. Fukuda won the Iwakuni mayoral election at least in part because the national government all but promised to release money that it had been withholding due to the incumbent’s opposition to the transfer of the US naval air base from Atsugi. There are no such obvious sops available to buy the by-election, if you’ll pardon the expression. In fact, this time around, it’s the DPJ that is trying to take credit for the good news on the tax surcharge.
You can see that other things being equal, it’s the DPJ that has the better chance. Given the unpopularity of the Fukuda administration, it is no wonder that the LDP is playing down the importance of the by-election, while trying to avoid giving the impression of defeatism. The opposition, meanwhile, is doing its best to portray it as a national mandate on the ruling coalition, while trying to keep attention away from the inherent strengths of the DPJ position.