Japan’s ruling LDP loses 2 out of 2 lower house by-elections

LDP's candidate Shimpei Kitakawa reacts as he is assured of loss in the House of Representative by-election in the Osaka No.12 constituency, in Osaka on April 21, 2019. (Mainichi)

TOKYO, Apr 22, 2019, Kyodo. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a crushing defeat in Sunday’s lower house by-elections in Okinawa and Osaka prefectures seen as a harbinger for an upper house election only a few months away, reported The Mainichi.

The losses in two out of two by-elections represented a significant setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, head of the ruling party and who is on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader in November.

Since Abe took office for the second time in 2012, it is the first time the LDP has lost in national by-elections, excluding an uncontested lower house by-election in Kyoto Prefecture in 2016.

The last time the LDP could not win in national by-elections dates back to October 2009 and it is almost certain that lawmakers of the ruling coalition will grow more restless when they step up preparations for the House of Councillors election in July.

In the by-elections for the No. 3 constituency in Okinawa and the No. 12 district in Osaka, freelance journalist Tomohiro Yara, who received support from opposition parties, and Fumitake Fujita of the Japan Innovation Party won respectively for the first time.

“We will humbly accept the results,” LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai told reporters at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo. “I want to analyze in a hurry what caused the losses.”

In the constituency in Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, pro- and anti-base candidates vied for a seat in the House of Representatives left vacant by Denny Tamaki who now serves as Okinawa governor.

Yara, 56, who won the by-election, is opposed to Okinawa Prefecture hosting U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The LDP’s Aiko Shimajiri, 54, who used to be minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, supported a central government plan to relocate the base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago, which makes up part of the constituency.

“The relocation to Henoko is not a solution,” Yara said after his victory became certain. “The Okinawa people’s will was strongly indicated.”

On Sunday, there was also a lower house by-election in Osaka Prefecture, together with hundreds of races to pick mayors and assembly members in cities, towns and villages nationwide.

Abe’s ruling party was hoping to build momentum in the run-up to the upper house election and mitigate the negative impact of recent resignations by two Cabinet members over controversial remarks.

In the first round of simultaneously held elections on April 7, the LDP won a gubernatorial race in Hokkaido and a majority of prefectural assembly seats but party divisions were revealed in some regional areas.

In Osaka, where Abe traveled to give a campaign speech on Saturday, the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito faced off against the Japan Innovation Party, which has seen strong local support for its plan to streamline the major western city’s administration by creating a metropolis akin to Tokyo.

Fujita, 38, of the party competed against the LDP’s Shimpei Kitakawa, 32, who was also backed by Komeito, and two other candidates in the Osaka No. 12 district.

“We will take a step toward new politics of a new era,” Fujita told his supporters in the city of Neyagawa after winning the by-election, which was held following the death of former Deputy Environment Minister Tomokatsu Kitagawa.

Final voter turnouts in the Okinawa and Osaka by-elections were both the lowest ever for the two constituencies, at 43.99 percent and 47 percent, respectively, according to local authorities.

Sunday’s vote came after Japan’s Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada stepped down earlier this month over remarks he made deemed offensive to people affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which also triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Abe’s effective sacking of the Olympics minister followed deputy land minister Ichiro Tsukada’s resignation on April 5 for remarks that suggested he had acted in the interests of the prime minister’s constituency over a road project.

The vote also came as the outlook for Japan’s economy, which has seen modest growth, is increasingly uncertain partly due to trade friction between the United States and China.

A close aide to Abe hinted Thursday at the possibility of another delay in the consumption tax hike, scheduled for October to 10 percent from 8 percent, depending on a key quarterly business sentiment survey by the Bank of Japan to be released on July 1.

Tax hikes are often unpopular among voters but Abe sought approval in a House of Representatives election in 2017 to use part of the revenue to enhance child-care support.

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