Tokyo, Aug. 22 (Jiji Press)–The humiliating defeat of an ally of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a closely watched mayoral election on his home turf on Sunday sent shock waves through the Japanese government.
With only two months left until the term of the House of Representatives lawmakers expires, calls are likely to gain traction for replacing Suga as the face of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the run-up to the LDP leadership election expected to be held in September. Suga’s term as LDP president expires at the end of September.
On Sunday, Suga replied in text message, “I appreciate your hard work,” after receiving an email from Hachiro Okonogi, former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, reporting his loss in the mayoral election in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai, a close aide to Suga, said in a television interview that “the LDP was unable to rally members behind Okonogi and recommend him” as an official candidate.
Okonogi, who was chairman of the LDP’s Kanagawa chapter, resigned as a member of the Suga cabinet in June to take responsibility for failing to field an original candidate for the Yokohama race, and he himself ran in the mayoral election.
Incumbent Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, an independent whom the LDP supported in two past mayoral elections, also filed her candidacy, splitting LDP votes between the two major contenders.
While the LDP allowed its members to vote at their own discretion, Suga took an unusual step of declaring his support for Okonogi.
After slumps in public approval ratings for his government, Suga is believed to have wanted to go on an offensive by winning a key election in Yokohama, which includes his own constituency in parliament.
At a meeting of LDP executives on Aug. 3, Suga said that although he was in the post of party president, he would support Okonogi as a friend.
Okonogi is a son of former Construction Minister Hikosaburo Okonogi, for whom Suga served as a secretary. According to sources, Suga himself made phone calls to influential people in Yokohama to seek support for the younger Okonogi, while Sakai helped distribute campaign fliers for Okonogi.
Suga’s deep commitment to the mayoral election backfired, however.
Initially, a key campaign issue was whether Yokohama should host a casino-fearing integrated resort, but Suga’s involvement shifted voter attention to his government’s much-criticized response to the raging novel coronavirus.
A middle-ranking member of the LDP faction led by former policy chief Fumio Kishida said the setback in the Yokohama election can be attributed to “a feeling of rejection toward the prime minister.”
A former cabinet minister in the party faction led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso said, “Some must have grown away from Okonogi because they disliked the prime minister.”
The LDP has suffered successive election losses since Suga took office in September last year.
The LDP took a beating in the Chiba gubernatorial election in March, with its candidate falling about one million votes short of the winner. The LDP lost all three parliamentary elections in April, while it ended up with the second-worst showing ever in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July.
The loss in the Yokohama mayoral election is serious in that it can be summed up as the defeat of prime minister.
The LDP presidential election is likely to be held on Sept. 29, with the official campaign period starting on Sept. 17, barring a dissolution of the Lower House for an election.
Before the party election schedule is decided on Thursday, many LDP lawmakers have suddenly become restless.
“We are in a crisis-like situation. There will be an outburst of calls (for Suga) to step down,” said a young member of the faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.
An official of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the LDP, does not hide a sense of crisis. “Opposition parties will be enlivened. We will be in a bind,” the official said.
In the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which supported the successful candidate in the Yokohama election, Kenji Eda, executive deputy leader of the party, set his sight on the coming Lower House election, which must be held by autumn.
“The LDP is not worth fearing if there is a viable alternative,” Eda told reporters. “The CDP faces the challenge of mapping out polices that touch the hearts (of voters).”