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Japan's Constitutional Democrats winning Twitter war

Legal restrictions hamper use of online tools in lower house election campaign

Nikkei staff writers | Japan

TOKYO -- Japan's lower house election will take place Oct. 22. The Nikkei Asian Review has analyzed the number of mentions the three big political parties have received on Twitter to see who is generating the most interest.

The newly formed left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan had the most tweets among Japanese users on Oct. 19  followed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party. 

The Constitutional Democratic Party, which was formed at the beginning of October, is generating huge interest on Twitter, putting pressure on Japan's more established parties. The LDP featured in more than 180,000 tweets daily, on average, between Sept. 25 and Oct. 19, followed by the Japanese Communist Party, which was mentioned in nearly 130,000 tweets a day. 

Who's up, who's down

Yuriko Koike, the popular governor of Tokyo, made a foray into national politics on Sept. 25 by forming the Party of Hope. There was a flurry of interest in the right-of-center opposition group, which was briefly seen as a serious challenger to Abe's LDP. It had more than 340,000 tweets on Sept. 28 -- nearly double the LDP figure. But that interest had cooled greatly by Oct. 9, putting the party in fourth place, with around 100,000 mentions a day since then.

Twitter mentions of the LDP and the Japanese Communist Party jumped immediately after Abe announced that the lower house would be dissolved, and tweets reached their first peak on Sept. 28, the day of the dissolution. The LDP was mentioned in more than 250,000 tweets on Oct. 12. The Constitutional Democratic Party was mentioned in more than 240,000 tweets on Oct. 3, just after its formation, topping mentions of the two older parties.

Use of the internet and social media in election campaigns was made legal in July 2013. The legal change was aimed at generating public interest in elections and increasing voter turnout. During campaigns, candidates and parties are allowed to use Twitter and Facebook to publicize their policies until the day before the vote. 

Japanese parties use a variety of methods to reach supporters online. The LDP leverages its roughly 19,000-strong Net Supporters Club to tout the government's achievements and campaign pledges. The Party of Hope and the Social Democratic Party post photos on Instagram. The Line messaging app is the tool of choice for the ruling coalition's junior partner, Komeito, and the Japanese Communist Party.

Mostly old fashioned

Yet Japan lags far behind other countries in online political activity. Abe has a mere 761,000 Twitter followers, compared with more than 40 million for U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, has well over 90 million. The Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S. both made full use of the internet in the 2016 presidential election to grab attention and sway voters.

But in Japan, online campaigning is often limited to sending information to supporters. This owes partly to regulations not seen elsewhere. Only parties can send out electioneering emails. Voters are banned from doing so. And banner ads by candidates are restricted. Many candidates, uncertain about what is and is not allowed, are leery of using the internet at all.

Another key difference is that candidates tend to use social media for one-way communication -- announcements of speeches or policy pronouncements, for example -- and fail to exploit its advantages as a tool for dialogue with voters. Although some candidates do debate policy online, most focus on street-level campaigning.

Some argue for a broader role for the internet in the electoral process, such as by promoting online campaign contributions and allowing electronic voting. E-commerce giant Rakuten in 2009 set up a website that let users send money to candidates, but the site failed to take off and was eventually shut down.

And while the 2013 legislative changes that legalized online campaigning also called for discussion of online voting, putting such a system in place will take time, if it happens at all.

Nikkei staff writer Yasumi Funatsu contributed to this report.


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