Stronger-than-expected headwinds batter ruling parties in Hiroshima election

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Former Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, left, talks with Yoichi Miyazawa, standing adviser to the LDP’s Hiroshima chapter, in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on Sunday after the LDP candidate lost the Hiroshima rerun election.

Voters handed the ruling parties a sharp rebuke in Sunday’s rerun and by-elections for three seats, which also were the first national elections under the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

A series of money-and-politics scandals appears to have heightened public frustration with the government, frustration that had already been built up over its inert response to the pandemic. The ruling coalition is increasingly apprehensive, stunned by this total defeat less than six months before the terms of House of Representatives members expire.

No Nikai at headquarters

On Sunday night in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai met with the party’s Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Hiroshi Moriyama and others to discuss the LDP’s next step. Nikai canceled his planned visit to the party headquarters, returning instead to the public dormitory for Diet members.

This was an unusual move for a secretary general, who is supposed to take command of national elections.

The LDP has been on the defensive since the beginning of the campaigns for Sunday’s lower house by-election in Hokkaido and the House of Councillors elections in the prefectures of Nagano and Hiroshima. All three elections served as a runup for the upcoming lower house general election.

Money-and-politics scandals triggered the elections in Hokkaido and Hiroshima, and the LDP decided to give up on the race in Hokkaido, claiming the party “had only a slim chance of winning.” In contrast, the opposition parties had established a strong base in Nagano, giving the ruling parties no chance to dominate.

The Hiroshima election followed the invalidation of the victory of Anri Kawai, who won the seat in the 2019 lower house election. Kawai was found guilty in a large-scale vote-buying case related to the election and has left the LDP.

Nevertheless, the ruling parties were seen to have an overwhelming advantage in basic votes in this “kingdom of conservative forces.” A senior LDP member had said, “We’d be happy if we win in Hiroshima, which would result in one win, one loss and one loss by default.”

However, the headwinds in Hiroshima were stronger than expected. The money-and-politics scandal has had a serious impact, with a member of the LDP’s Hiroshima prefectural chapter saying: “We lost a considerable number of supporters.” Dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the coronavirus also weighed heavily.

On Friday, Suga decided to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures. He said at a subsequent press conference, “We sincerely apologize for again inconveniencing the public.”

Voting and ballot-counting were held on the same day the declaration took effect. A veteran LDP member said the coincidence “did not make a good impression, even though Hiroshima is not under a state of emergency.”

Lingering ill will

Friction between the LDP headquarters and the Hiroshima prefectural chapter also cast a shadow over the election campaign. In the 2019 lower house election, the headquarters fielded Kawai, despite opposition from the party’s prefectural chapter. Suga and Nikai, who actively supported Kawai in the 2019 election, did not show up in Hiroshima this time.

At the final stage of the election, Suga sent a telegram to local prefectural assembly members and others in his capacity as party president, asking them to “distribute all copies of the LDP’s policy leaflet that touts the reboot of the Hiroshima chapter.”

One member who received the leaflet tore it up and threw it away, saying, “apologize first.”

Coalition partner Komeito’s support of LDP candidate Hidenori Nishita helped him win some votes, but it was not enough to catch up with the opposition-backed candidate.

“I have become keenly aware that whether they liked the LDP or not was a deciding factor for voters,” an LDP member said. “We’ll be in trouble in the lower house election if we get overly optimistic because we think the opposition parties are unsteady.”

Sunday’s result dealt a blow to former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida from Hiroshima Constituency No. 1, who is aiming to become LDP president. As a chairman of the Hiroshima prefectural chapter, Kishida stayed in the prefecture and took command by assigning Diet members in his faction to call supporters for endorsements. He also sought the help of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who has strong influence over the Hosoda faction, the largest in the LDP.

After the defeat in Sunday’s election, a veteran lawmaker said the party is “far from ready for the [LDP] presidential election.”