Japan special election win boosts PM Shinzo Abe's prospects despite coronavirus criticism

Mr Abe's support has sagged in recent opinion polls, with many respondents saying his response to the coronavirus outbreak had been too slow, or out of touch with voter priorities. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) scored a convincing special election victory, indicating the opposition has failed to capitalise on criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yoichi Fukazawa, 43, an LDP member and former regional assemblyman, won election for a lower house parliamentary seat representing Shizuoka prefecture on Sunday (April 26), easily beating a rival backed by four opposition parties.

Fukazawa secured 61.3 per cent of the vote in the district about 160km south-west of Tokyo, compared with 35.5 per cent for his nearest rival, Ken Tanaka.

Abe's support has sagged in recent opinion polls, with many respondents saying his response to the coronavirus outbreak had been too slow, or out of touch with voter priorities. That dissatisfaction hasn't translated into enthusiasm for opposition parties - whose single-digit support rates have barely budged during the pandemic - meaning Abe could still be well-placed to win another general election.

"I believe this shows that the people to some extent understand and appreciate the government's policies on the novel coronavirus," LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida was cited by broadcaster NHK as saying.

Japan's so far relatively low infection rates may also help keep Abe's approval ratings from falling further. The country has reported about 13,000 infections and about 350 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures published Sunday. Both numbers are the lowest among Group of Seven nations.

The Shizuoka campaign included measures to prevent the virus from spreading, avoiding gatherings and handshakes. Turnout amid a nationwide state of emergency was 34 per cent, about 20 percentage points lower than in the last general election.

After the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed, some have speculated that Abe, already the country's longest-serving prime minister, could take advantage of the gap in his calendar to call an election in the summer. If he wins, it would be his fourth-straight general election victory.

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