Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Voters Strike a Blow Against the Kishida Administration

But not a knock out punch

By Takuya Nishimura,
Senior Fellow, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
April 29, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

On Sunday, April 28, voters firmly rejected the Kishida administration and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In three by-elections of the House of Representatives, the LDP lost all three seats. The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) won all three races.

The results reflect public frustration with Kishida’s handling of the slush fund scandal and the LDP’s slow progress on political reform. The elections dealt a significant blow to Kishida’s efforts to preserve his administration.

By-elections are held twice a year, ordinarily in April and October, when a seat of any district of both Chambers of the Diet is vacant, either by resignation of a lawmaker, death or for other reasons.

One of the three by-elections, the election in the Shimane-1 district, followed the death of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hiroyuki Hosoda. Hosoda was the head of the Seiwa-kai faction, also known as the Abe faction, which was at the epicenter of the slush fund scandal. Hosoda was also suspected of having close ties to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the former Unification Church, and of having sexually harassed a female reporter.

In the one-on-one match-up in Shimane-1, Akiko Kamei of the CDP defeated Norimasa Nishikori of the LDP by a margin of 25,000 votes. It was almost the same as Hosoda’s winning margin in the last election in 2021. Swing voters who voted for Hosoda three years ago shifted to Kamei.

Kamei’s victory was the LDP’s first loss in this highly conservative district since the current election system was introduced in 1996. Although the Shimane branch of the LDP has been split since the gubernatorial election in 2019, the result of the by-election is widely interpreted as a protest by LDP supporters against Kishida’s indecisive handling of the slush fund scandal.

The second by-election, held in the Tokyo-15 district, filled a vacancy left by the resignation of the former LDP Representative, Mito Kakizawa. He stepped down after his arrest on suspicion of bribery in a mayoral election in Koto city, Tokyo. The LDP did not have a candidate on the ballot, and the election became a contest among nine candidates of the opposition parties.

Natsumi Sakai of the CDP won the race, with the support of the Japan Communist Party. Sakai’s victory showed that the CDP and the JCP can work together successfully in a race that does not include a LDP candidate. The Japan Innovation Party, or Nippon Ishin, took third in the race. A candidate supported by the popular governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, came in fifth.

The third by-election was held in the district of Nagasaki-3 after the resignation of Yaichi Tanigawa. He had been indicted on charges of receiving over 40 million yen in kickbacks from the Abe faction. The LDP did not have a candidate in the race. The CDP’s Katsuhiko Yamada won the seat with 53,000 votes, twice the number of votes that Ishin’s candidate received.

The message of the results in Tokyo-15 and Nagasaki-3 is that voters who gave up on the LDP turned to the CDP, rather than to Ishin. Although the LDP did not field a candidate in two of the three districts, the LDP was seen as suffering defeats in three elections. “It was an extremely severe result. We hope to restore confidence through accumulating efforts for political reform and leading political agenda to solution,” said LDP Secretary General, Toshimitsu Motegi, on the night after the elections.

Defeat in Shimane was a particularly significant blow to the Kishida administration. Typically, the prime minister will join campaigns only for winnable districts in a general election. Kishida unusually campaigned in Shimane-1 twice. The LDP’s loss surely tarnished Kishida’s reputation.

The LDP tried to avoid outright voter rejection by not offering candidates in Tokyo-15 and Nagasaki-3. But the sweeping victory by the CDP and low voter turnout in those two districts showed considerable resentment of old-style LDP politics – the undisclosed use of political funds. The results in the two districts may signal a trend in other districts all over Japan. Indeed, they may mark the end of the era of LDP’s unilateral domination.

The results of the by-elections shocked LDP lawmakers. They will now be forced into close races in the next election. They will certainly oppose a snap election. An attempt by Kishida to call one in June would instigate a movement in the LDP to replace Kishida. Party members will look for a leader who can reduce the number of victims of an unpopular leader in next election.

So far, such a movement has not materialized. Leaders of the Abe faction had questioned Kishida’s leadership. But they have been inactive since they were subjected to severe penalties in the aftermath of the slush fund scandal.

Although Motegi or former Premier Yoshihide Suga have tried to rally some in LDP, there is not a movement for either. The most popular figure to replace Kishida, Shigeru Ishiba, has not decided to run for the presidential election. A strange silence has descended on the LDP. But it is likely that someone or something will ignite a movement against Kishida, as the party heads to the presidential election in the fall.

Even the CDP cannot be optimistic about the next general election. Their three victories were the result of LDP errors. A framework of electoral cooperation is essential if other parties are to replace an LDP administration. The Head of the CDP, Kenta Izumi, once told reporters that it would take five years for CDP to achieve a regime change. It is up to Izumi to build a viable strategy quickly to replace the LDP in the next general election.

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