Yokohama mayoral election result reflects lack of confidence in Suga

Despite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga giving his full support to a former Cabinet member in a mayoral election in Suga’s constituency, the candidate suffered a crushing defeat. This may be an indication of lack of confidence in the central government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The government and ruling parties must take this result seriously.

Takeharu Yamanaka, who was recommended by the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, was elected mayor of Yokohama for the first time, defeating such other candidates as Hachiro Okonogi, who was backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and incumbent Fumiko Hayashi.

Yamanaka, a former Yokohama City University professor, promoted himself as an expert on the coronavirus and opposed bringing an integrated resort that includes a casino to Yokohama. In addition to the backing of opposition parties, Yamanaka’s victory was fueled by broad support from independent voters.

The government and the LDP have positioned casinos as a pillar of their growth strategy. In spite of that, the fact that the prime minister supported Okonogi, who also announced opposition to a casino, may have failed to win the understanding of voters. As a result, conservatives were split between those supporting Okonogi and those backing Hayashi, who has promoted the integrated resort project.

In the early stages of the election campaign, Yamanaka, Okonogi and Hayashi were highly likely to run a close race. However, as the coronavirus infection situation worsened, the Suga administration’s failure to take effective measures drew attention, helping Yamanaka to garner votes from people critical of the administration and win by a wide margin.

Voter turnout stood at 49%, up nearly 12 percentage points from the previous poll, which also benefited Yamanaka. For the ruling parties, the fact that they could not gain support from independent voters in urban areas, where the population is large, is a cause for concern in the next House of Representatives election.

Okonogi resigned as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission to run in the mayoral election. The prime minister, who was elected to the Diet from Yokohama, supported Okonogi by such means as assigning his secretary to Okonogi’s campaign. Most of the LDP’s Yokohama city assembly members and ruling coalition partner Komeito also supported Okonogi, but the LDP could not make coordination within the party to unify its support for a single candidate.

Regarding the defeat in the mayoral election, Suga said: “It was a very disappointing result. I will accept it humbly.” At the same time, he reiterated his intention to run in the LDP presidential election scheduled for September.

For the prime minister, the Yokohama mayoral election was the latest defeat in a large election, following three special elections in April (for one lower house seat and two House of Councillors seats) plus the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. A decline in Suga’s leadership is inevitable. The latest election result will surely affect his strategy for dissolving the lower house.

Some LDP lawmakers say they will not be able to effectively compete in the lower house election under Suga’s leadership. The LDP will again have to strengthen its electoral foundations as a party, rather than merely relying on the popularity of the prime minister.

The prime minister’s primary responsibility is to display his leadership in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. His administration should make efforts to strengthen the medical care system and ease public anxiety.

On the opposition party side, the CDPJ and the Japanese Communist Party joined hands and achieved results in their joint efforts. However, some private-sector labor unions opposed the CDPJ’s cooperation with the JCP, and the Democratic Party for the People decided to allow members to vote at their own discretion. In the next lower house election, it is more important for opposition parties to agree on their policies and basic philosophies.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 24, 2021.