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Politics

Japan's ruling LDP snags local races despite discontent over Abenomics

Lacking candidates, opposition parties unable to make gains ahead of upper house election

Naomichi Suzuki celebrates after winning the Hokkaido gubernatorial race on April 7. Suzuki was backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and junior ruling coalition partner Komeito.
Naomichi Suzuki celebrates after winning the Hokkaido gubernatorial race on April 7. Suzuki was backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and junior ruling coalition partner Komeito.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party won 10 gubernatorial races and many seats in prefectural assemblies on Sunday, as opposition parties failed to offer alternatives to voters outside major metropolitan areas who are unhappy with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies.

The election results show the LDP is in a superior position going into this summer's national election for the Diet's upper house, facing little coherent opposition. The ruling party positioned economic revitalization as its leading policy, and Abe hopes to frame the victory in Sunday's local elections as a mandate for his Abenomics policies.

But Japan's economic rebound has been confined to the country's largest cities. A Nikkei survey conducted in late March related to the gubernatorial races in Hokkaido, Shimane and Fukuoka prefectures found that roughly 70% of respondents do not think the economy has improved. The opposition, however, was unable to capitalize on this.

The race for Hokkaido governor provided the only real battle between the ruling and opposition groups. Naomichi Suzuki, endorsed by the LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito, defeated Tomohiro Ishikawa, who was backed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party for the People and the Japanese Communist Party.

The LDP also experienced infighting that prevented it from rallying around a single candidate in some races.

"The results were poor in races where local LDP chapters were divided," said Toshihiro Nikai, the party's secretary-general. "This is a matter that needs to be reflected on."

Sunday's contests were the first in a slew of regional races leading to the upper house election. This year brings both the regional polls across Japan and the Diet race, a crowded political schedule that happens every 12 years. With politicians having to campaign for multiple races, the organizational power of each party is tested.

The Constitutional Democrats and the DPP, both with roots in the former Democratic Party of Japan, struggled to field a full slate across the country. Of 11 gubernatorial races, they supported candidates also backed by the ruling coalition in three prefectures.

These two opposition parties also lacked a standard-bearer for four races in which the LDP's infighting produced multiple candidates.

In one of those races, Fukuoka Prefecture Gov. Hiroshi Ogawa won a third term by defeating LDP favorite Kazuhisa Takeuchi and Kiyoshi Shinoda, backed by the Communist Party.

And in Shimane Prefecture, LDP-backed candidate Seiji Oba was outpolled by Tatsuya Maruyama, who had the support of the party's prefectural assembly members.

"It was the weakness of the opposition parties that led to the ruling coalition being divided," said Shuhei Kishimoto, the election chief for the Democratic Party for the People.

Osaka's election provided a big boost for efforts to unify the prefectural and city governments. Osaka Ishin no Kai, the party behind this push, employed the unusual political gambit of having the incumbent governor run for mayor and the current mayor seek the governorship.

The outgoing Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, the chief of policy research for Osaka Ishin, won the gubernatorial race against former Vice Gov. Tadakazu Konishi, who was supported by the ruling coalition.

And departing Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, the head of Osaka Ishin, will become the next mayor by topping former Osaka municipal assemblyman Akira Yanagimoto, who was backed by the LDP.

The double election saw Osaka Ishin pitted against an LDP-led coalition that included its rival parties in national politics.

But Osaka Ishin prevailed and is poised to control a majority in the prefectural assembly as well. The party is expected to intensify efforts to hold a referendum on a once-defeated initiative to merge the prefecture and city governments into one metropolitan body resembling that of Tokyo.

The weak showing by the LDP's rivals spread to the elections for 41 prefectural assemblies, where the Constitutional Democrats fielded 177 candidates while the DPP backed 113. But this total of 290 compares with a slate of 571 hopefuls fielded by the now-defunct DPJ when it held power in 2011 and 345 candidates in 2015 after the party fell out of power.

The LDP opposition parties also did not challenge candidates backed by the ruling bloc in six mayoral races in large cities.

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