Japan to the polls

People across Japan  headed to the polls on Sunday to elect governors, mayors and local lawmakers. For national parties, it’s an opportunity to fortify their base in the lead up to Upper House elections this summer.

Polling stations began opening at 7 a.m. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito are hoping for big wins to ensure their political agenda maintains momentum. But opposition parties see Sunday’s vote as an opportunity to chip away at the ruling bloc.

Some issues cut across multiple regions… such as how to maintain services in rural areas struggling with a declining population.

11 prefectural governor seats are up for grabs…with two races generating most of the attention.

The northern prefecture of Hokkaido is the only race where the ruling and opposition blocs directly face off.

And in Osaka, the main issue dominating the campaign is what’s known as the “Osaka metropolis plan,” which would abolish Osaka City and reorganize it into special wards just like Tokyo.

Sunday’s elections will also determine the mayors of 6 big cities, along with 17 municipal and 41 prefectural assemblies.

But two trends have been emerging in recent years. There’s been a noticeable drop in voter turnout to about 50 percent. And just over a quarter of the prefectural assembly seats have candidates running unopposed.

Ballot counting will begin after the polls close at 8 p.m.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party got off to a good start Sunday as it heads toward this summer’s Upper House election, winning the key Hokkaido gubernatorial election in the first round of nationwide local polls, Kyodo News projections showed.

But the process of choosing candidates also revealed significant divisions in the ruling party as it failed to field a single candidate in other gubernatorial races held the same day due to conflicts within some local chapters.

The LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito scored a victory in the race in Hokkaido — the only one among Sunday’s 11 gubernatorial elections that pitted a candidate backed by the ruling bloc against a unified candidate for opposition parties.

Naomichi Suzuki, 38, a former mayor of the town of Yubari who was endorsed by the ruling bloc, defeated former Lower House member Tomohiro Ishikawa, 45, who was backed by opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, according to Kyodo projections.

Ishikawa is a former secretary to Ichiro Ozawa, an opposition party heavyweight, and many opposition leaders visited Hokkaido to support Ishikawa’s campaign.

Ishikawa’s defeat is likely to dampen election prospects for opposition parties, which are now preparing for a critical Upper House election set for summer.

Elections were also held to pick six mayors as well as assembly members in 41 out of the country’s 47 prefectures and 17 big cities. The final results were expected early Monday.

In Fukuoka, incumbent governor Hiroshi Ogawa, 69, beat Kazuhisa Takeuchi,47, who was backed by Finance Minister Taro Aso, and Kiyoshi Shinoda, an independent backed by the Japanese Communist Party.

That result is particularly humiliating for Aso, a close ally of Abe, because some LDP members rebelled against him and supported Ogawa during the campaign. Aso’s own election district is in Fukuoka Prefecture.

“We couldn’t get him elected and it’s very frustrating. I apologize for it,” Aso told a meeting of Takeuchi’s supporters in the city of Fukuoka on Sunday evening.

The first round of nationwide elections came only days after a deputy land minister resigned to take responsibility for remarks he made that special treatment was given to a road project to please Abe and Aso, adding to a series of gaffes and scandals involving ruling lawmakers since Abe took office in 2012. Aso doubles as deputy prime minister.

Revitalizing regional economies and stemming population declines were among major issues in the elections as rural areas are seen as benefiting less from the Abenomics policy mix undertaken by the prime minister.

The central government has said Japan’s economy is expanding moderately. But recent data have indicated the country has already entered a recessionary phase rather than marking its longest growth streak since the end of World War II, as was previously believed.

In Fukui, Shimane, Tokushima and Fukuoka prefectures, the LDP failed to field single candidates, revealing divisions within its local chapters. Gubernatorial races were also held in Kanagawa, Nara, Tottori, Oita and Mie prefectures.

Japan will have another round of simultaneous local elections on April 21.

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