The election, to fill the seat vacated by newly elected Iwakuni mayor Fukuda Yoshihiko, pits the LDP’s Yamamoto Shigetaro (59) against the DPJ’s Hiraoka Hideo (54). Mr. Hiraoka is a three-term Diet member who first won election in 2000, winning 104,372 to 97,355 votes over the LDP incumbent, Sato Shinji. He was reelected over Mr. Sato in 2003, widening his margin of victory to 109,647 to 91,087 votes. In 2005, however, he was narrowly defeated by Mr. Fukuda, 104,322 to 103,374, although he was returned to the Diet via the Chugoku PR block.
Mr. Yamamoto, competing in his first election, is a recently retired bureaucrat who began his career in the construction ministry in 1972 and as of 2007 was coordinating regional revitalization policy at the office of the chief cabinet secretary.
As Sankei notes on the by-election, the campaign is the primary battleground now as the road construction/gasoline tax fight reaches a climax (the HR will be able to vote again on the tax bill from 29 April), with major figures from both parties trekking to Yamaguchi to campaign on behalf of the candidates. The election is, of course, also a test for Prime Minister Fukuda. If Mr. Yamamoto can win, Mr. Fukuda may be able to shore up his position within the LDP on the basis of his ability to get LDP candidates elected.
I feel confident predicting that Mr. Hiraoka will regain the seat he lost in 2005. Given his history of success in the district (winning his seat by defeating an LDP incumbent first elected in 1979), his narrow defeat in 2005 (a terrible year for DPJ candidates, making his close margin of defeat a point in his favor), and the general loss of confidence in the Fukuda governmen, Mr. Hiraoka will win an impressive victory over the newcomer Mr. Yamamoto. Mr. Hiraoka’s previous election results attest to his skills as a campaigner and his support in the district, something that Mr. Yamamoto — even with the backing of LDP heavyweights like Aso Taro and Koike Yuriko — will be unable to top. In fact, I expect that Mr. Hiraoka may equal or better his 2003 total of 109,647 votes and will likely be aided by the absence of a JCP candidate in the race. (Yamanaka Ryoji, the JCP candidate in 2005, received 13,499 votes, more than enough to make a difference in the narrow race.)
The Japanese media’s take on this by-election is that it’s rooted in national dynamics. Maybe, but I would argue that the national dynamics hurt Mr. Yamamoto far more than they help (or hurt) Mr. Hiraoka. It would take a fair wind in the LDP’s favor to neutralize Mr. Hiraoka’s advantages. That’s what happened in 2005, after all, and even the LDP won by only the slightest of margins. The fundamentals of the race favor the DPJ.