Japan PM Kishida’s ruling party scores big wins in local election contests

The wins came on Sunday, when the first of two rounds of unified local elections took place. The next is on April 23.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (centre) with members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party during the party's annual convention in Tokyo in February. PHOTO: AFP

April 10, 2023

TOKYO – Sapporo is set to resume its bid for the 2030 Winter Olympic Games, while Osaka will stay the course in its pursuit of integrated resorts, after their incumbent leaders handily trounced opponents in local elections across Japan on Sunday.

At stake were the gubernatorial seats of nine prefectures, including Hokkaido and Osaka, and the mayoral seats of six “government ordinance” cities with more than 500,000 residents. Voters also chose assembly members in 41 prefectures and 17 big cities.

Sunday marked the first of two rounds of unified local elections – the next is on April 23 – that have taken place every four years since 1947. Polls at various levels of municipal government such as prefecture governor, city mayor and local assemblies are held on the same day, and are seen as a midterm assessment of the incumbent government.

Also on April 23 are national by-elections to fill five vacant Parliament seats.

A resounding victory in both rounds, along with Mr Kishida’s recent rebound in Cabinet approval ratings, is set to intensify talk of a snap election.

The Prime Minister’s support has been on a rebound after scoring diplomatic wins with an abrupt visit to war-torn Kyiv and a detente struck with South Korea.

This also worked in favour of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sunday, said Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano, noting that Cabinet approval at a nadir could have been a liability.

The LDP turned out to be the big winner on a night with few surprises. Political apathy drove down turnout – fewer than one in two voted in many municipalities – while a shortage of candidates meant walkovers in about 40 per cent of the contested districts.

The re-election of Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto, 67, and Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki, 42, both of whom are LDP-backed, is set to revive the northern city’s bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics after they trounced anti-Olympic candidates.

Sapporo had been a favourite until it suspended active lobbying amid an unfurling scandal of bid-rigging, vote-buying and bribery over the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that led to representatives of six companies being charged by Tokyo prosecutors.

The city has declined to call a public referendum over the Olympics, but Mr Akimoto’s re-election is effectively seen as a substitute for one, as he appealed for a Games that can revitalise the local economy.

Mr Suzuki, meanwhile, is a rising LDP star and protege of former prime minister Yoshihide Suga.

Over in Osaka, the rising national opposition, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), held on to the prefecture governor and city mayoral seats.

Mr Hirofumi Yoshimura, 47, was re-elected as governor while Mr Hideyuki Yokoyama, 41, was elected as Osaka City mayor, replacing retiring mayor Ichiro Matsui, 59, also from Ishin.

The Osaka-founded party has been striving to lose its “regional” label and is setting its sights on national politics. It is now the second-largest opposition party in Parliament.

Ishin’s Makoto Yamashita, 54, won the Nara governor seat after votes were split between two LDP candidates including Mr Sho Hiraki, a former secretary to Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi.

LDP-backed candidates also won in prefectures such as Shimane, Oita and Kanagawa, where incumbent Yuji Kuroiwa, 68, was re-elected despite an adultery scandal that erupted last week.

LDP election strategy chairman Hiroshi Moriyama, while lamenting the loss in Nara, said: “The sweeping victories in Hokkaido and Oita, which were a direct showdown between the ruling and opposition parties, are of great significance.”

“It can be said to be a result of the public’s positive evaluation of the LDP and its policies,” he added, hoping that the LDP could ride the wave into the April 23 by-elections.

Among the Diet seats at stake are two Lower House seats in Yamaguchi prefecture. One was formerly held by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated on July 8, 2022, and the other by his brother, former defence minister Nobuo Kishi, who resigned over ill health in February.

Two other Lower House seats in Chiba and Wakayama prefectures, and one Upper House seat in Oita prefecture, will also be up for contest.

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