Official campaigning for quadrennial unified local elections started across Japan on Thursday, with results expected to impact the House of Councillors election in the summer.
Incumbents and new faces filed their candidacies for the first round of the local elections to be held on April 7 — gubernatorial races in 11 prefectures, mayoral polls in six major cities, and assembly elections in 41 prefectures and 17 big cities.
Revitalizing regional economies and stemming population declines are among major issues in the regional elections, which are held simultaneously every four years with the aim of cutting election costs and increasing voter turnout.
The April elections will be seen as a measure of the popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government and a strong showing by his ruling bloc could regenerate momentum going into the upper house election in the summer.
Abe has struggled in recent months to improve his cabinet's approval rating as a lack of progress in talks with Russia over a territorial dispute and a faulty labor data scandal has impacted his standing.
Among the 11 gubernatorial races, the poll in northern Japan's Hokkaido will be the only one in which candidates backed by the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito will face off with multiple opposition-approved candidates.
"There is no place for complacency. We have to bear in mind that every day counts," the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's election chief Akira Amari said in a stump speech in Sapporo.
Yukio Edano, the head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, delivered speeches in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi in an attempt to build support for his party.
"We need as many people as possible to join us to rebuild our society," Edano told a crowd in the city of Toyohashi.
In Kanagawa, Nara, Tottori and Oita, incumbents supported by both the ruling bloc and some opposition parties will compete with candidates who are backed by the Japanese Communist Party or are unaffiliated.
Mie, in central Japan, will see a head-to-head competition between an incumbent backed by the ruling coalition and a newcomer supported by the JCP.
In Fukui, Shimane, Tokushima and Fukuoka, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has failed to endorse individual candidates, triggering a feud and division within local groups.
Osaka abruptly joined the prefectures holding gubernatorial elections when Gov Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura resigned earlier this month to seek a swap of their current positions. The politicians are attempting to reshape the western Japan city into a metropolitan government similar to Tokyo's.
The LDP, currently headed by Abe, has had an uphill battle in past unified local elections that come once every 12 years along with the triennial upper house election, with the party struggling to secure local members' support in the national race as they are spent by their own campaigns.
A crushing defeat in the upper house election in 2007 led to the collapse of the first Abe administration that lasted for less than a year. Abe returned to power in late 2012.
The second round of unified local elections to pick mayors and assembly members in Tokyo wards, smaller cities, towns and villages, will be held on April 21 and will coincide with House of Representatives' by-elections in the Osaka No. 12 district and the Okinawa No. 3 constituency.