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Politics

Abe's LDP loses 2 seats in national by-elections

First defeat in 10 years forces party to regroup ahead of summer polls

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets guests during a cherry blossom viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen park in Tokyo.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party looks to regain momentum ahead of this summer's upper house election after losing lower house by-elections on Sunday for the first time in 10 years.

The defeats in Okinawa and Osaka follow a series of gaffes and other missteps by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, one of which cost the Olympics minister his job. Abe had attended a rally for the LDP candidate in Osaka the day before the vote.

While the ruling coalition did well overall in the local elections, some worry that it has grown complacent under one of Japan's longest-serving prime ministers.

In Okinawa's 3rd district, the home district of Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, independent Tomohiro Yara bested Aiko Shimajiri, a former cabinet minister. Yara, like Tamaki, opposes the government's plan to relocate the U.S. air base in Futenma.

In the 12th district of Osaka, the LDP candidate, nephew to the incumbent whose death resulted in the by-election, lost to a challenger from regional party Nippon Ishin no Kai.

The defeats can be seen as a public rebuke to "slackness in government," ruling coalition member Komeito's Tetsuo Saito, the junior party's secretary-general, told reporters.

In the upper house, a defeat for even one of the 67 LDP seats up for reelection means losing the party's stand-alone majority in the chamber, which would limit Abe's room to maneuver.

There is speculation that Abe is considering a snap lower house election to coincide with the upper house race to try to take the initiative, possibly coinciding with a delay in raising the consumption tax in October.

The LDP's de facto second-in-command, Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, called the by-election losses "very disappointing" but looked ahead to the next contest.

"I won't say there is no impact [on the upper house election], but the outcome will keep the candidates on their toes," Nikai said.

Both elections had record-low turnout, and the rest of the day's local elections hardly showed an opposition comeback. "There were unique circumstances in both districts," Komeito's Saito said.

Still, some in the LDP worry that the party will struggle to match its landslide win in the 2013 upper house election held about six months into Abe's current stint as prime minister. Half of the house's membership of 242 is elected every six years.

The LDP aims to stop any loss of momentum. Some in the party speculate that depending on the economic situation, Abe could try for early lower house elections, possibly on the same day as the upper house poll.

Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend to the throne in May and is expected to receive U.S. President Donald Trump. In June, Abe will host the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, where he could score diplomatic wins.

Last week, a close aide to Abe, senior LDP lawmaker Koichi Hagiuda, suggested a potential delay to a consumption tax hike to 10% scheduled for October. He added that such a decision would need to be "put to the people" in an election.

The government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, later denied that a delay was under consideration. When Nikai was asked Sunday about the possibility of same-day elections, he told reporters: "We're not currently thinking about that."

"We don't know what could happen if we dissolve the lower house, so there's a big risk," Saito said. "It would not be ideal."

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