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Editorial: Time for reflection as the LDP gets thumped in Tokyo elections

Trouncing in capital assembly poll was self-inflicted

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters at his office in Tokyo on July 3.

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2.

The sheer number of seats lost by the party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose grip on power has been unrivaled for some time, can be put down to growing public criticism of what many see as arrogance from his government and several gaffes by a cabinet member and other LDP lawmakers.

LDP executive officials now need to reflect deeply on what the outcome means, and how it reflects public sentiment.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike's party Tomin First no Kai, or "Tokyoites First Party," is now the largest force in the capital's municipal assembly. Together with affiliated groups, her party secured an overwhelming majority. The LDP, whose candidates were defeated in many of the single-seat electoral districts, took just 23 seats in the 127-strong assembly, even less than its previous low of 38.

There is a strong sense that the LDP brought the results on itself. While Koike's Tomin First portrayed itself as a force for reform taking on the establishment, the country's ruling party was unable to get its message across throughout the campaign.

In the previous ordinary session of the Diet, the LDP rammed through legislation to amend the organized crime law, paving the way for the prosecution of criminal organizations planning or preparing terror attacks or other serious crimes. The swift and forceful passage of the controversial bill drew plenty of criticism. In addition, the LDP and the Abe administration have been facing allegations of favoritism over an application to open a veterinary school by the Kake Educational Institution, which is chaired by a close friend of the prime minister. Opposition parties have claimed that government officials close to Abe applied pressure on the relevant authorities, making it difficult for them to act impartially.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an LDP board meeting on July 3.

As the saying goes, bad things come in threes. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, while campaigning for an LDP candidate in the recent election, said that "the Defense Ministry, the Self-Defense Forces, the Defense Minister and the LDP" were all counting on voters' support. Critics say her remarks contravene the political neutrality that the Defense Ministry and the SDF must maintain. Mayuko Toyota, a lower-house member, abused one of her secretaries by striking him several times and yelling insults while he was driving, according to a leaked audio file. Scandals like these have further damaged the LDP's image among voters.

Abe has won the last four nationwide elections in a row, including the 2012 general election that brought him back to power. But the result in Tokyo seems to indicate many voters, sensing an arrogance and lack of discipline that may have crept in as a result of the LDP's long stint in government, turned their backs and voted for Koike's new party. The latest opinion polls have also shown a steep drop in the Abe cabinet's approval ratings. Given these indications, Abe's management of government, which has been faring well up to now, may be facing a turning point.

"A castle that takes three years to build can be destroyed in a day," is a phrase Abe has often cited in recent speeches. As the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito hold more than two-thirds of the seats of the more powerful lower house of the Diet, his grip on power in national politics remains unchanged. However, if public opinion for his administration grows much worse, Abe may be forced to reconsider the time scale for certain key policy objectives.

His goals themselves are somewhat high hurdles to clear. As for his long-held desire to see amendments to the constitution, Abe is looking to have proceedings initiated by the Diet by the end of next year. He wants to serve a third term as party chief by winning the next LDP presidential election, scheduled for September 2018. He is also aiming for victory in the next general election due by December 2018.

The government and the LDP are contemplating a cabinet reshuffle by the end of August to replace certain ministers who have come in for criticism. Voters will be closely watching what steps Abe takes in response to the outcome of the Tokyo municipal election.

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