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Suga on the ropes: Japan mayoral race bellwether for re-election bid

  • August 19, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 2:01 p.m.
  • English Press

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor

 

TOKYO — A mayoral candidate with an endorsement from a sitting prime minister should coast to an easy victory. 

 

But in the run-up to Sunday’s Yokohama mayoral race, Hachiro Okonogi, a former national public security chief with the full backing of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, is waging a fierce battle against rival candidates. 

 

The election in Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city and Suga’s home turf, has turned into a proxy battle for national politics, with ruling and opposition parties going all-in to support their candidates. One of Okonogi’s key opponents is an ex-professor backed by the top opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.

 

As Suga struggles to contain coronavirus infections, he is counting on Okonogi’s victory to lift his own political fortunes in the weeks ahead of a general election and an LDP leadership race.

 

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Suga reiterated that he would “of course” run in the upcoming LDP presidential election to stay on as prime minister.

 

His administration has presided over a vaccination campaign that, while slow to get off the ground, has made progress. Data released Wednesday by the prime minister’s office shows 84.7% of those 65 and older and 38.8% of the overall population having received two vaccine doses.

 

But the fast-spreading delta variant has thrown the administration off track. Tokyo was placed under a fourth state of emergency July 12, and the outbreak has shown no signs of retreating after more than a month. The decree has since been expanded to cover 13 prefectures, with Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka and four other prefectures added to the list Tuesday, and was extended that day to Sept. 12.

 

Support for Suga’s cabinet has shown a clear pattern in relation to infection numbers, rising when infections fall and dropping when the outbreak picks up steam. Multiple recent polls show his approval rating hitting a new nadir.

Public support of 30% is widely seen as the make-or-break threshold. If support sinks below that, it would become significantly difficult for the prime minister to stay in power.

 

A Nikkei poll in late July put approval of the prime minister’s performance at 34%. He sank into the danger zone in surveys this month by Asahi Shimbun and NHK, at 28% and 29% respectively.

 

Suga’s term as LDP chief ends Sept. 30, not long before the terms of lower house lawmakers end Oct. 21. Campaigning for the LDP race is expected to begin Sept. 17, with the vote taking place Sept. 29.

 

The plan was originally to dissolve the lower house for a snap election shortly after the Paralympics wrap up Sept. 5, but it is now expected to come after the end of the extended state of emergency.

 

Suga still looks to dissolve the lower house before the LDP race begins, to turn the general election into a referendum on his continued leadership. He opted to set the end date for the emergency decree on Sept. 12, instead of keeping it through late September. This will leave open the option of dissolving the lower house by Sept. 17 as long as coronavirus cases are somewhat under control.

 

Meanwhile, the idea of holding the LDP leadership race early is gaining ground within the party. The leading proposal calls for a full-fledged election involving all of the party’s rank-and-file members, in contrast to last year’s slimmed-down vote to replace the resigning Shinzo Abe.

 

Potential rivals to Suga include former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, chair of the LDP’s powerful Policy Research Council.

 

Okonogi is a son of former trade minister Hikosaburo Okonogi, for whom Suga worked as a secretary in the 1970s. The younger Okonogi headed Suga’s campaign in last year’s LDP leadership election.

 

A win for Okonogi could help turn the political tides in Suga’s favor.

 

But in the previous mayoral race in 2017, the LDP endorsed incumbent Fumiko Hayashi, and some LDP members on the city council still back her.

The split among conservatives could provide an opening for the opposition if the Constitutional Democrats and the Japanese Communist Party can stay united.

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