Opposition-backed Candidate Elected Governor in Shizuoka; Latest Defeat for LDP Deals New Blow to Kishida

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Former Hamamatsu Mayor Yasutomo Suzuki speaks to supporters in Shizuoka after his victory in the Shizuoka gubernatorial election on Sunday looked certain.

A former Hamamatsu mayor backed by opposition parties won the Shizuoka gubernatorial election on Sunday, dealing a fresh blow to the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Yasutomo Suzuki, 66, is an independent candidate supported by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People. Suzuki defeated five contenders, including former Deputy Shizuoka Gov. Shinichi Omura, 60, an independent who was backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

This setback for the LDP came after it effectively lost three by-elections for the House of Representatives in April.

LDP members increasingly believe that an early dissolution of the lower house would be difficult. Following this series of election defeats, it seems inevitable that pressure will intensify within the party for Kishida, who is also LDP president, not to dissolve the lower house before the party’s presidential election in autumn.

The outlook for the management of the government is increasingly grim.

Wound deepens

“The mindset is likely to spread that competing in an election under the prime minister will be tough,” a Cabinet minister said Sunday. The minister hinted that moves to find a new LDP president would accelerate in the run-up to the election.

A senior LDP official also expressed concern, saying: “An early dissolution of the Diet is impossible. The LDP could lose power.”

The Shizuoka gubernatorial election was regarded by the ruling and opposition parties as a crucial race that would affect the management of the government, as it was held after the LDP suffered a serious setback in the by-elections on April 28.

Some members of the government and the LDP had argued that it would be unnecessary for the ruling party to compete against headwinds, so the LDP initially considered forgoing its endorsement for Omura, whom the party’s local prefectural chapter proposed supporting.

However, the LDP decided to endorse him on May 8, the day before official campaigning for the gubernatorial election kicked off.

“Even if we limit our support for him to the prefectural chapter level, that would be regarded as a defeat for the LDP,” a party executive said at the time. “If he’s supported by the party headquarters and wins the election, the atmosphere surrounding the Kishida administration will change completely.”

Pushed by this argument from many LDP executives, Kishida decided to take a chance. However, this ended up deepening the “wound” the party had already suffered.

Deja vu of Suga era

This series of defeats for the LDP in by-elections for Diet seats and local elections is reminiscent of the political developments seen in 2021 when former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was in power.

Under Suga, the LDP was defeated in by-elections for both the Diet chambers and a re-held election for the House of Councillors in Hiroshima Prefecture in April 2021, as well as the Yokohama mayoral election in August of the year.

Combined with the party’s defeat in the then Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, moves to seek a “new face” for the LDP gained momentum. As a result, Suga was forced to give up on running in the LDP presidential election the following September.

Yokohama is Suga’s home turf, and at the time of the LDP presidential race, the term for lower house members was set to expire the following month. The current terms for lower house members will expire in October next year, so there is a certain amount of leeway.

“Kishida won’t suffer as much damage as Suga,” said a former cabinet member close to Kishida.

Recovery measures

Nevertheless, Kishida has been severely criticized over violations of the Political Funds Control Law involving LDP factions. With limited time and opportunity to recover before the party leadership race, the path to reelection is difficult for Kishida.

One LDP heavyweight said, “He may not even be able to run for the party presidency.”

Many observers believe that if Kishida decides to dissolve the lower house to break the deadlock, moves to put him out of power will become pronounced and the situation will be unmanageable.

Kishida apparently hopes that fixed-amount tax cuts to be implemented in June will buoy his administration. However, a government plan to require the amount of the tax cuts to be listed on paychecks has not been well-received. The LDP’s stance on revisions of the Political Funds Control Law has also not met with favor from the public.

“If we rush into unnecessary moves, we’ll end up digging our own grave,” a source close to the prime minister said. “We have no choice but to steadily advance our policy measures and work to regain support.”