Ruling Liberal Democratic Party Faced Unexpectedly Close Election Battles

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshimitsu Motegi, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, right, answers reporters’ questions at party headquarters early Monday morning about the outcome of the by-elections for the Diet.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party had unexpectedly close contests in Sunday’s by-elections for Chiba Constituency No. 5 in the House of Representatives and the Oita Constituency in the House of Councillors. And although the party secured victories in the lower house’s Yamaguchi No. 2 and No. 4 constituencies, the LDP candidate was defeated in Wakayama Constituency No. 1.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida plans to analyze the outcome of the by-elections and carefully consider the timing for dissolving the lower house, while closely observing his Cabinet’s approval rating.

Positive evaluation

“In the sense of a midterm assessment of the Kishida administration, the public gave us a favorable rating,” LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi said to reporters early Monday morning at party headquarters about the outcome of the by-elections.

Motegi attributed the LDP’s victories in Chiba Constituency No. 5 and the Oita Constituency to its decision to field new faces.

“We did well and managed to win races in which we started behind other parties because our candidates’ names were completely unknown to voters,” Motegi said.

Sources close to the party said Kishida expressed his happiness over telephone, calling the outcomes “very good.”

LDP members are lauding the victory in the upper house’s Oita Constituency, where the opposition camp unified behind one candidate. An executive of the LDP Election Strategy Committee said the win “dealt a serious blow to the opposition camp” because it followed the LDP’s victory in the gubernatorial election earlier this month in Oita Prefecture, where opposition parties traditionally have a solid power base.

However, some LDP members expressed concern because an LDP-backed candidate was defeated in the lower house’s Wakayama Constituency No. 1 and faced tough battles in other races.

The LDP provided generous support in Wakayama Constituency No. 1. Diet members from the prefecture, including former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and upper house Secretary General Hiroshige Seko, worked to secure votes, and prefectural Gov. Shuhei Kishimoto, also helped with campaigning.

The LDP camp initially seemed confident even as Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) gained momentum, winning the gubernatorial election in Nara Prefecture in the first round of the unified local elections earlier this month.

“In Wakayama, Ishin will only be able to blow a gentle breeze,” an LDP member reportedly said.

An explosive was thrown at Kishida when he visited Wakayama Prefecture on April 15 to provide campaign support. The prime minister paid another visit on Saturday, but it did not help the LDP-backed candidate whip up support as expected.

“Things seemed favorable until right after the election was declared, but after that the tide turned,” Seko said regarding the LDP’s defeat.

LDP let guard down

Observers said some in the LDP appeared to have let their guard down due to the Cabinet’s improving approval rating.

In the lower house’s Chiba Constituency No. 5, where an LDP lawmaker resigned over a political funds scandal, the LDP-backed candidate was expected to face headwinds. But opposition parties were unable to unite behind a single candidate, so the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and four other opposition parties ran separate contenders.

“We were supposed to win the race more comfortably, so there’s a lot to reflect on,” a senior party member said.

In Yamaguchi Constituency No. 2, Nobuchiyo Kishi, the eldest son of former Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, won the seat held by his father. However, he faced backlash over the issue of hereditary succession after he posted a family history chart on his campaign website.

Consequently, he ended up in a hard-fought race with Hideo Hiraoka, an independent who served as justice minister under the administration led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan.

An LDP executive said, “The LDP camp relaxed at one point, thinking it would be an easy win.”

Post-Hiroshima summit

The LDP won four of the five by-elections, so an increasing number of LDP members will likely expect the prime minister to dissolve the lower house after the May summit of the Group of Seven leading economies in Hiroshima.

Given the closely contested races in the by-elections, however, an LDP executive said, “The situations in each constituency must be examined, and the lessons learned there applied to the future.”

The timing of the lower house dissolution will be extremely important for the prime minister’s pursuit of a second term as LDP president. The best scenario would be to smoothly go through the presidential race after securing a victory in the lower house election.

However, Kishida’s tenure as LDP president does not end until September next year. If there is too long a period between the lower house election and the end of his presidential term, Kishida’s approval rating may decline and there could be moves to unseat him as prime minister.

Kishida reportedly said, “I don’t know what will happen in the future,” while he had lunch with LDP Vice President Taro Aso and Secretary General Motegi at a restaurant in Tokyo on April 14.

“If he puts off the lower house dissolution with an eye on the presidential election, he may miss an opportunity just like the administrations of former prime ministers Yoshihide Suga and Aso did,” a Cabinet member said. “He should dissolve the lower house when his support rate picks up.”

People around Kishida have said he may dissolve the lower house at the extraordinary Diet session in autumn after a Cabinet reshuffle.