TOKYO -- A stinging rebuke by voters in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election Sunday is certain to set off postmortem finger-pointing and a strategic recalibration within Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party as he weighs a path forward for amending the constitution.
"We take the results seriously," a stunned Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told reporters Sunday night. "We will reassess what needs to be reassessed and do our best to recover our lost ground."
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's new Tomin First no Kai party and groups aligned with her captured 79 seats in the 127-member metropolitan assembly, handily defeating the LDP, which was left with a meager 23 seats, down from 57 before the election.
Hakubun Shimomura, who heads the LDP's Tokyo chapter but faces allegations of receiving murky political donations, attributed the party's loss to trouble on the national level. "Heavy headwinds were blowing far above, in national politics," he said in a Fuji Television program. He later told reporters that he plans to step down to take responsibility for the loss.
Abe's party had enjoyed unrivaled strength since unseating the Democratic Party of Japan in December 2012, as victories in three national-level elections followed. But a favoritism scandal involving a veterinary school run by a friend of Abe's as well as a gaffe by his hawkish defense minister on the campaign trail appear to have weakened public support.
Complications for Abe
In a Nikkei opinion poll conducted June 16-18, right before the start of campaigning for the metropolitan assembly election, approval ratings for the Abe cabinet stood at 49%, a 7-point drop from a month earlier. Abe's power inside the party could erode if his plunging support is viewed as the cause of the devastating loss in the crucial Tokyo vote.
Growing criticism within the party could complicate Abe's plan for an easy victory in the LDP presidential election in September 2018.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former regional revitalization minister who is believed to harbor ambitions for Abe's job, gave a scathing assessment. "We should acknowledge the historic defeat," he told The Nikkei. "This was not a victory for Tomin First no Kai, but a defeat for the LDP."
"Damage control is crucial," Ishiba added. "The timing of a cabinet shake-up and the new lineup will determine the future of government management going forward."
"We need to think seriously about what the government and the ruling party should do," Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.
The process likely will begin with a revamping of the cabinet and the top party lineup, which Abe is expected to carry out by the end of August. In particular, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who caused an uproar by telling voters to support a particular candidate on behalf of "the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces," could be targeted for replacement. If Abe concludes that his cabinet's image is tarnished beyond repair, he could opt for a wholesale lineup change.
The next election
The disappointing outcome could affect Abe's decision on the timing of the Diet's lower house election, which must be held before the current members' term expires in December 2018. Abe needs to ensure that those supporting constitutional amendment retain a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet in order to achieve his goal of rewriting the nation's war-renouncing charter by 2020. Dissolving the lower house for a snap election amid strong political headwinds likely would be unwise.
A seasoned lawmaker who had served in cabinet posts conceded that holding general elections this year is now out of the question. If Abe wants to submit proposals for constitutional amendments in next year's ordinary Diet session, he may be unable to call elections until December 2018. If Abe calls an election and the party loses, he may even be forced to step down.
Yet if the LDP's election prospects deteriorate rapidly, Abe may look to act quickly to limit the damage. Given the impressive advances made by Koike's party, some may team up with her to gain seats in the national parliament. If such moves become apparent, Abe may be better off calling an election quickly before Koike and her allies have time to assemble a formidable opposition force. And if Abe's party loses that election, he will be forced to rethink his plans for constitutional amendments.
Abe has maintained steady support since returning to power in December 2012. Though public approval dipped after controversial national security bills were railroaded through the Diet in 2015, Abe quickly recovered, helped by a weak opposition. But Sunday's loss came after a series of missteps at the national level and could have lingering repercussions for his government.
Meanwhile, the assembly election was an unalloyed success for Koike's populist movement. The governor now has a solid mandate from capital voters as she tackles the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market and preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her influence could grow in issues that affect national politics, such as measures against secondary smoking and favoring free education.