August 23, 2021

Asia

JAPAN: Yokohama loss narrows path forward for Suga, with no good options left

BY James Brady

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( 5 mins)
  • The defeat of the candidate he endorsed in the 22 August Yokohama mayoral election has further damaged Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s hopes of retaining power in two forthcoming elections, and calls into question casino resort proposals in that city.
  • The nature of the defeat will worry the ruling LDP party ahead of the upcoming Lower House elections, and could motivate other challengers to run in late-September’s party leadership race.
  • Perversely, the likelihood of the beleaguered Suga calling a snap September general election may have risen, though that remains a risky option.

The defeat of Hachiro Okonogi in the Yokohama mayoral election was just the latest poor performance of a Suga-backed candidate in recent months, following similar setbacks in Lower House by-elections and the Tokyo assembly polls, and reinforces Suga’s image within his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as an election-loser. Public opinion has already turned against his government, with unsteady handling of the pandemic the major factor behind approval numbers plunging from the 70s in the honeymoon period to around 30% today.

Suga’s endorsement had been a case of personal connections over policy on his home political turf. Runner-up Okonogi is the son of one of the prime minister’s early mentors and until recently a member of his government but had run on a platform opposing the construction of Japan’s first casino resort in Yokohama – a policy that Suga has been pushing for several years. The victorious candidate Takeharu Yamanaka has stated that his office will not submit a bid to host an integrated resort in the Tokyo-adjacent city, which is Japan’s second largest by population. As such, the future of that project is in doubt.

Some LDP members may have sleepless nights this week because of the nature of the victory of Yamanaka, a former professor who had the backing of the two largest opposition parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). Turnout in the poll was up 12% from the 2017 election, and independent voters broke decisively for the political neophyte. This indicates growing voter anger towards the hegemonic LDP, which has governed continuously in coalition with the Komeito party since late 2012 and in total for all but about six years since the establishment of Japan’s modern political system in 1955.

Moreover, Suga’s endorsement helped split the LDP vote in a decisive way, and casts further doubt on his strategic approach. The third-placed candidate was the pro-casino incumbent mayor Fumiko Hayashi, who had won three previous terms with LDP support. Combining the vote share of Hayashi and Okonogi suggests that a single LDP candidate would have triumphed, but even this hypothetical still leaves Suga on the wrong side of the decisive issue in the election.

Going forward, we expect the Yokohama result to further stimulate competition in the forthcoming LDP party leadership contest, expected to be announced on 17 September and held on 29 September. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida signaled his interest in running, the most significant challenger to do so in the past week. Kishida was a leading candidate to replace then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in last year’s party presidential election, though his political stock has since fallen after he backed the wrong horse in an April by-election in Hiroshima.

The other 2020 contender Shigeru Ishiba has also lost standing and has signaled reluctance to run this time. Vaccine minister Taro Kono is considered a viable candidate and was the top choice of around 40% in a poll of business leaders this week, ahead of Kishida and Ishiba. Kono’s next move will be watched with interest in the coming days.

Among the party kingmakers, influential Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has given his support to the incumbent. However, former Prime Minister Abe and current Finance Minister Taro Aso are said to be working together behind the scenes to advance members of their party factions. Suga is unaligned with any faction, which worked in his favor last year as the party effectively coalesced around him as a compromise candidate, but which leaves him vulnerable this time.

Beset by a surging Covid-19 fourth wave hurting his public support and growing opposition within his party, Suga has no good options for deciding the date of the next Lower House election, which he has discretion to call until 21 October and which by law must be held no later than 28 November. His wait-and- see strategy seems to have been based on the hope that the country’s late- starting vaccination program would eventually see cases fall and his poll numbers rise, but recent events cast doubt on his ability to survive as party president if he continues this current course.

The other option is to call a snap general election in September, turning that poll into a referendum on his leadership of the country and hence the party going forward. Structural advantages mean the LDP remain favorites, so the question would be the extent to which Suga could minimize losses to the party’s large majority.

The window of opportunity would be small. With state of emergency measures running until 12 September and Japan’s elections typically held on a Sunday, 26 September is probably the only viable option for this. Such a course of action would be inherently risky, given poll numbers, case numbers, and party dissatisfaction.

It would be a bold move from a politician not known for such actions, but Suga may now be wondering if it is his least-worst option.

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