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Defeat in Yokohama mayoral race might deal fatal blow to Suga

By Sato Ryuichi, Kitamura Tomonori and Tanoue Tatsuya (Yokohama bureau)

 

The Yokohama mayoral election (voting on Aug. 22), in which eight candidates are jockeying for position, is emerging as an increasingly important threshold for the government, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, who is elected from Yokohama, is fully involved in the race. Amid flagging public support, he is seeking to turn the tide around, but if his candidate loses, the race will prove a “double-edged” sword that could deal him a deal a fatal blow.

 

On the rainy afternoon of Aug. 13, Okonogi Hachiro took to the streets in front of JR Kamoi Station in Yokohama’s Midori Ward. He was playing up his pledge to call off Yokohama’s integrated resort project featuring a casino. Whenever someone passed by, he interrupted his speech and approached them to exchange a fist bump. The veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who has served in the Diet for eight terms is doing everything possible to win votes.    

 

Though the LDP has long favored the IR project, Okonogi shifted his stance as the project “has not won the full support of citizens.” The federation of Yokohama LDP branches is split on this issue, allowing its members to vote at their own discretion. With the exception of Aug. 8, when the mayoral race was officially announced, senior LDP members have been muted in their support for Okonogi. Following the decision made by the federation of Yokohama LDP branches, Komeito has also left to its members who to vote for. Prefecture and city assembly members are supporting Okonogi on a “voluntary basis.”

 

It is ironic that Prime Minister Suga, once a staunch proponent of the IR project, is backing Okonogi. The premier stepped into the political world as a secretary to Okonogi Hikosaburo, a Lower House member and Okonogi’s father. It was easy to imagine that if his aide lost the race in his home turf, his political influence would further decline as his public support has already been limping.

 

In Yokohama, those who are supporting Okonogi are city and prefecture assembly members who once worked as Suga’s secretaries. At a campaign event held on Aug. 11, even Nitta Shobun, the secretary for political affairs to the premier, showed up. He put on a blue polo shirt, which is worn by the rest of the Okonogi team, and helped distribute fliers. 

 

Meanwhile, Suga is also doing his share. Though he is busy responding to the pandemic, he takes time out to make phone calls to his local supporters to back Okonogi.

 

One person who hasn’t heard from Suga in about ten years was surprised to see at firsthand Suga’s strong commitment in the local election and immediately said he would support Okonogi. Suga has told people close to him that “I will put all my energy into the race.” The way he is ardently seeking support appears to their eyes “a level of commitment on par with his commitment to seek reelection as a junior Lower House member.”

 

But a senior member of the Okonogi team says in confusion: “Voters are critical of Suga’s turnaround on the IR project. Bringing Suga to the fore will work against us as his public support is already hitting the skids.” Okonogi’s flyers are designed to make the word “independent” conspicuous.

 

Meanwhile, a senior member of the campaign team of incumbent Hayashi Fumiko, who has promoted the IR project in tandem with Suga, says the mayor “suddenly lost his support.”

 

Just before she publicly declared her bid for reelection on July 15, she made a phone call to Suga and told him that “an IR is indispensable to Yokohama’s future, and to realize this, I will run in the race.” Though the LDP offered her the opportunity to retire, citing her multiple terms as mayor and concern for her health, she had expected Suga to bless her run.

 

But Suga brushed her off. When a city assembly member close to Suga conveyed support for Hayashi, he said: “I’m backing Hachiro and will do all I can do to support him.”

 

On the day when the election was officially announced, the first thing Hayashi said was: “To promote tourism, I proposed to host an IR. The LDP and Komeito offered support, but suddenly they pulled out. I just don’t know how to interpret this.” When she campaigned at a shopping arcade in front of Tsunashima Station in Kohoku Ward, she called for public understanding by saying that “having a government-run gambling facility can generate money that we can use for healthcare and child-rearing support.”

 

As an incumbent, she must prioritize dealing with COVID-19. The time she can spend to take to the streets is limited. She is now banking on her 12 years’ experience as mayor, pro-IR people in business circles ,and several LDP city assembly members. (Abridged)

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