If you believe the headlines, the noose around the neck of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government will be tightening following a lower house by-election defeat on Sunday.
In the poll for the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency, Nobutaka Machimura, a former foreign minister running on the ticket of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, defeated Shigeyuki Nakamae, the rookie DPJ candidate.
Machimura won by a majority of 30,000, turning round a 30,000-vote deficit. And on the face of it, this was a convincing victory for the LDP. Conservative harbingers of doom will likely pounce upon the result as an indication of the government’s poor performance and pronounce the impending unravelling of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government.
But is the defeat of a 38-year-old greenhorn against an experienced heavyweight on home turf really such a blow to Kan?
This result was to be expected for a number of reasons. The by-election was called as a result of the resignation of the DPJ’s Chiyomi Kobayashi over an illegal political donation. With the DPJ dogged by scandals involving dirty money (party tsar Ichiro Ozawa faces indictment and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been implicated in a funding scandal), Machimura just had to convince the public that his hands were clean.
It also did not hurt that in competing for his old seat, the 66-year-old Machimura was well known by constituents. He also may have picked up votes from his gamble to give up his current seat to make a return to Hokkaido.
Had the LDP fielded a candidate for whom the odds were less well-stacked, the result may have been much closer.
A mid-term by-election defeat is not uncommon for an incumbent government, and Kan should not lose too much sleep over the outcome. The opposition should also not get carried away with this result—neither should a sensationalist press.