Japan Ruling Party Struggles in ‘Kingdom of Conservatives’; Liberal Democratic Party Battered By Fundraising Scandal

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People listen to a campaign speech in Matsue on Tuesday.

With official campaigning now underway for three House of Representatives by-elections, the Liberal Democratic Party is facing a tough battle in a Shimane constituency known as the “kingdom of conservative forces,” buffeted by the political fundraising scandal involving some of its factions.

Of the three lower house by-elections to be held on April 28 – in Tokyo Constituency No. 15, Shimane Constituency No. 1 and Nagasaki Constituency No. 3 – the LDP is not fielding candidates in the Tokyo and Nagasaki constituencies. The party is therefore putting its energy into the Shimane constituency, where the ruling and opposition parties are facing off in a battle the LDP cannot afford to lose.

‘I can feel it’

Norimasa Nishikori, a candidate endorsed by the LDP, launched his election campaign for the Shimane constituency in front of the prefectural government office in Matsue on Tuesday.

“The political funds issue is causing a lot of distrust” of the LDP, said Yuko Obuchi, the leader of the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee, at a ceremony to kick off Nishikori’s campaign. Obuchi began her speech by apologizing for LDP factions’ violation of the Political Funds Control Law, underscoring the difficult situation the party is in.

Nishikori said: “The election will be difficult for us. I can feel it strongly.”

Shimane Constituency No. 1, which covers Matsue and other municipalities, has been a stronghold of the LDP.

Beginning with the 1996 lower house election, which took place after the introduction of the electoral system combining single-seat constituencies with proportional representation, LDP member Hiroyuki Hosoda was elected to the lower house nine times in a row. Hosoda also served as the speaker of the lower house,

Shimane is the only prefecture in the nation where the LDP has dominated the single-seat constituencies for the lower house.

However, some LDP members believe this election is completely different.

Hosoda, who died in November 2023, was criticized in his later years for his relationship with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, formerly the Unification Church, and over allegations of sexual harassment.

“LDP supporters are noticeably deserting the party, and there’s no sense of campaigning in memory of [Hosoda],” a senior official of the party’s Shimane prefectural chapter said.

The mood in the LDP camp has also been dampened by LDP factions’ violations of the Political Control Funds Law.

The camp of Akiko Kamei of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) aims to lessen support for Nishikori by focusing on the issue of “politics and money.”

CDPJ Executive Deputy President Kiyomi Tsujimoto, known as a harsh adversary in the Diet, participated in the launch of Kamei’s campaign by giving an address in front of JR Matsue Station in Matsue.

“Everyone is very angry,” Kiyomoto said. “The problem is the hidden funds of the LDP. Let’s punish the Kishida administration and bring it to justice with your vote.”

Kamei exhorted the crowd gathered for her speech, “Let’s change politics by breaking up the LDP political kingdom.”

Cracks in the party

In the 2019 Shimane gubernatorial election, LDP Diet members who belong to the prefectural chapter and more than half of the prefectural assembly members who belong to the LDP supported different candidates. It was the first election in 44 years in which the conservatives were split.

With divisions remaining among the conservatives in the prefecture, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told his aides that “the conservatives are divided, so we have to work with both sides,” sources said.

Kishida called Shimane Gov. Tatsuya Maruyama, whom the prefectural assembly members had backed in the divided election, and others to ask for their cooperation. He is scheduled to campaign in the constituency as early as Sunday.

Kishida is going all out in the Shimane by-election because the result will have a direct impact on his strategy for the dissolution of the lower house.

Kishida is said to be considering dissolving the lower house at the end of the Diet session in June if support for the Cabinet, which remains low, rebounds on the back of wage hikes and fixed-amount tax cuts.

Since Kishida’s term as LDP president expires in September, it will be important for him to take control of the political situation to win re-election as president by hinting that he might dissolve the Diet.

Yet, if the LDP loses all three by-elections, the prime minister’s momentum within the LDP will be further eroded — which could effectively block an early dissolution of the Diet.

The worst-case scenario whispered about within the LDP is that the CDPJ will win all three by-elections.

“We’ve been resting on the ‘plethora of weak opposition parties,’ but the by-elections may change the atmosphere,” a former LDP Cabinet member said.