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Politics

Mixed elections threaten power balance in Abe's inner circle

Suga gains momentum from Hokkaido and Osaka results, while Aso falls behind

The outcome of April 7's regional elections could have starkly different political implications for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, left, and Finance Minister Taro Aso.

TOKYO -- Two gubernatorial elections that brought starkly different outcomes for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday could alter the power dynamic between two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's most trusted aides: the finance minister and the chief cabinet secretary.

The LDP's Fukuoka Prefecture gubernatorial candidate, whom Finance Minister Taro Aso backed over the doubts of peers, lost to the incumbent by nearly 1 million votes. In contrast, the Hokkaido gubernatorial race ended in victory for the LDP's Naomichi Suzuki, who was supported by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Since returning to the prime minister's office in 2012, Abe has relied on a quartet of party heavyweights to form the backbone of his government: Aso, Suga, former Economic Revitalization Minister Akira Amari and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. Suga, whose recent unveiling of the name of the new Imperial era went viral, seems to have further bolstered his clout in Sunday's elections, potentially upending the delicate power balance among the four political veterans.

Aso was contrite after the defeat of his candidate. "I offer my apologies," Aso said Sunday.

"This was an own goal by Mr. Aso," former LDP Secretary-General Taku Yamasaki said.

In Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, Suga actively campaigned for Suzuki until the day before the vote, when he stumped in front of a Sapporo train station. Suzuki had approached Suga back in 2018 with plans to run, and the chief cabinet secretary pledged his support as long as the candidate was fully committed. The LDP also won a majority in the prefectural assembly for the first time in 36 years.

The Osaka mayoral and gubernatorial elections, in which Osaka Ishin no Kai candidates beat LDP-backed contenders, could also work in Suga's favor. Suga has been building rapport since before 2012 with leaders of Osaka Ishin no Kai, a conservative regional party that is pushing to merge the prefectural and city governments. He and Abe hope to enlist their support for revising the constitution, one of the prime minister's top goals.

With Suga's visibility on the rise, Suga could play a major role as the LDP moves to pick the next leader who will replace Abe.

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