Japan’s ruling party faces dilemma of using PM Suga as face of elections

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yokohama mayoral candidate Hachiro Okonogi, former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, bows to a supporter in Yokohama after his defeat became certain.

The defeat in the Yokohama mayoral election of Hachiro Okonogi, a former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, who was fully supported by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, has dealt a major blow to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

A growing number of people feel uneasy about Suga serving as the face of the LDP’s campaign for the upcoming general election, so the political situation is likely to become fluid with the ruling party’s presidential election in September and the next House of Representatives election due by autumn.

On Sunday evening, Suga wrote “Thank you for your hard work” in response to an e-mail from Okonogi thanking Suga for his support during the election campaign.

Even after Okonogi was reportedly waging an uphill campaign, Suga urged on local assembly members close to him, saying: “We must support Okonogi without any excuses. Do your best until the end.”

Suga, 72, is deeply indebted to Okonogi’s late father, Hikosaburo, a former construction minister who gave the then 26-year-old Suga his start in the political sphere by hiring him as his secretary.

When Okonogi, 56, informed Suga in late May of his intention to run for Yokohama mayor, Suga was initially perplexed. But at the end of July, Suga made clear that he would support his “little brother” Okonogi “with all his might.”

While having refrained from making any tangible public moves targeting the election, Suga had extended his full support behind the scenes. For instance, he had Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai, a close aide, and executive secretaries for political affairs on the streets handing out flyers for Okonogi.

A point of contention in the mayoral election was the debate over Yokohama applying to the central government for the right to host an integrated resort featuring a casino. Suga has been a chief booster of IR projects, while Okonogi has urged the city to end its bid to lure such projects. This dichotomy was hard for voters to comprehend.

Support within the ruling party was further splintered as some local assembly members who formerly worked as secretaries for Suga backed Fumiko Haysahi, the incumbent mayor who called for promoting the IR project.

Also dealing the Okonogi camp a heavy blow was the central government’s response to the novel coronavirus crisis.

The spread of infections has been conspicuous in Kanagawa Prefecture. The daily number of newly infected patients, which stood at fewer than 2,000 on Aug. 8 when the election was officially announced, has surged close to 3,000 a day. The state of emergency declaration, which had been in place for Kanagawa since Aug. 2, has been extended until Sept. 12, with additional prefectures added to the list of those subject to the declaration.

The headwinds facing the central government, unable to take effective measures to handle the pandemic, seems to have directly pushed Okonogi off course.

“Voters’ criticism was initially directed at the IR project,” said a senior official of the LDP’s Kanagawa prefectural chapter. “But halfway through the campaign, all the criticism was cast against the central government’s poor handling of the coronavirus.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yokohama mayoral candidate Hachiro Okonogi, former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, bows in Yokohama after his defeat became certain.

Defeated by voters

Since the Suga Cabinet was inaugurated in September 2020, the LDP has suffered defeats in major elections in which the ruling and opposition parties faced off. The number of successful candidates fielded by the LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July turned out to be the second lowest on record.

As Suga’s “little brother” has been defeated in Yokohama, which includes Suga’s constituency, it is inevitable for concerns to grow within the LDP over how the party will handle the lower house election campaign with Suga remaining at the head of the party.

“It is natural for diverse voices to be emitted from Diet members with weak power bases,” Suga has told those around him, showing a self-assured attitude even amid the growing restlessness within the party.

But his initially envisaged scenario in which the party will win the lower house election before the LDP presidential election is held and that he will safely weather the presidential election having won public trust in the lower house election hangs by a thread.

“I wouldn’t say that there is no possibility that the lower house is dissolved in September, but it is not realistic,” said a major Cabinet member.

Amid election defeats, the focus now turns to the first hurdle before Suga: his own reelection in the party’s presidential race.