Campaign season officially kicks off in Japan for Oct 31 general election

TOKYO – Election season officially kicked off in Japan on Tuesday (Oct 19) as candidates fanned out across the country in hopes of winning over voters in a general election set for Oct 31.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, 64, who dissolved the Lower House just 10 days into his tenure, was pulled off the campaign trail – scrapping two appearances in north-east Akita prefecture – as he rushed back to Tokyo over a North Korea missile launch on Tuesday.

But in Fukushima earlier in the morning, he had touted his election pledge to achieve a “new style of Japanese capitalism” which prioritises growth and wealth distribution so as to uplift a struggling middle class amid wage stagnation.

The poll, in which 1,051 candidates are vying for 465 seats, has been framed as a clash between the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, and an opposition that has tried to largely put up a united front in a bid to up their chances in unseating the LDP.

Yet, underscoring the uphill battle that the opposition faces are two rallies that took place at the same time at two different exits at the JR Kamata train station in Tokyo.

Kamata is a chiefly bourgeoisie heartland neighbourhood with 297,210 residents.

At the west exit was incumbent LDP candidate Masaaki Taira, 54, a five-term Lower House lawmaker representing the Tokyo No. 4 Constituency who is gunning for his sixth.

He had star power in the form of the popular former administrative reform and vaccination minister Taro Kono, 58, whose draw was evident from the estimated 200 people who tuned in.

More than 80 lawmakers have sought Mr Kono’s help to stump for them in the hopes of tapping his public appeal.

Mr Kono, who is now in charge of the LDP’s public relations headquarters, had lost to Mr Kishida in last month’s race to succeed Mr Yoshihide Suga as prime minister.

At the east exit, however, was one of Mr Taira’s two competitors – Mr Tomooki Hayashi, 45, a director of a non-profit who is contesting on the Nippon Ishin no Kai ticket. But unlike the LDP rally, few gathered to listen to him.

Also in the race for the constituency is doctor Tomoyuki Tanigawa, 50, of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). The JCP has entered an informal coalition with the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) to field joint candidates so as to avoid diluting the opposition vote.

This has been termed a “marriage of convenience” by the LDP, with Mr Kono among those who have seized on the negative image associated with communism to question rhetorically if voters will “want to give a vote to communism”.

Yet, the LDP manifesto shares slight similarities in the joint CDP-JCP platform. The parties, while across the political divide, have criticised former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s signature Abenomics brand of economic policies to win votes.

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Mr Kishida recognises Abenomics as having ended deflation and promoted growth, but criticised it for failing to address disparities and catalysing the rich-poor divide.

The LDP pledges to “rebuild a robust middle class with a ‘new capitalism’ “. This is similar to the CDP’s plan to “restore a society with a 100-million strong middle class”.

Mr Kishida has set a conservative target of winning a simple majority of 233 seats with Komeito. The LDP alone had 275 seats in the dissolved Diet, while the Komeito had 29 seats.

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Opinion polls show that seven in 10 voters want Mr Kishida to chart a different course from Mr Abe and Mr Suga, even as the LDP remains odds-on favourites to win. Opposition rule from 2009 to 2012 has been seen as an abject failure.

Among those listening to Mr Kono was a 27-year-old computer engineer who wanted to be known only by his last name Yagi.

While he said he was disappointed that Mr Kono was not prime minister, he told The Straits Times that he saw the LDP as a “proven pair of hands” that has made positive steps towards digitalisation.

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