The Liberal Democratic Party may have unseated Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) as the dominant force in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly in Sunday’s poll, but the party has little to celebrate.
Defying initial predictions that the LDP would capture more than 50 seats out of 127, albeit with its junior partner Komeito losing seats, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s LDP and Komeito failed to reach a majority — the former only adding eight more seats to its previous tally of 33, and the latter keeping all of its 23 seats.
Tomin First, for which analysts expected to see a drop in seats from 45 to around 20, performed better than expected, emerging with 31 seats. The Japanese Communist Party grabbed one additional seat for a total of 19, and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan picked up seven additional seats, bringing it to a total of 15.
Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly campaigns have long been regarded as an important prelude to subsequent national elections. Many Tokyoites are voters without party affiliation, and their vote is often a reflection of broader public sentiment that could boost or depress the ruling parties’ performance in the general election.
Sunday night’s unexpectedly worse outcome for the LDP lights up a warning sign for Suga, whose fate as leader of the party rests on the stable supply of coronavirus vaccines to municipalities and the successful holding of the Tokyo Games without triggering an explosive outbreak.
“I’ll humbly accept the fact that the LDP and Komeito couldn’t win a majority as we promised,” the prime minister said Monday morning. “I imagine there are various factors (contributing to the loss), but the party headquarters and our Tokyo branch will coordinate to analyze the outcome and prepare for the next election.”
For months, the Suga administration has been overwhelmed by the pandemic, with the public harshly evaluating its response. Including a race in Hokkaido in which the LDP chose to forgo fielding a candidate, the prime minister and his party lost all three by-elections in the run-up to Sunday’s poll.
Among regional elections, the metropolitan assembly campaign often foreshadows the outcome of a general election. In 2009, for example, the then-Democratic Party of Japan won the vote in the capital before winning the general election. The outcome flipped in 2013, when all of the LDP’s candidates in the metropolitan assembly election won before prevailing in the Upper House election.
Ahead of the vote, coronavirus vaccines had emerged as a potential solution to the pandemic and a boost for the nation’s sluggish economy, with the shots even turning around falling Cabinet approval ratings. The administration’s all-or-nothing bet on inoculations — which has seen municipalities, the Self-Defense Forces, large companies and universities implement the rollout — led to a steep rise in the number of vaccines administered, with the figure surpassing 1 million per day. Recent polls indicated that the rapid vaccination rollout helped lift the government’s approval rating off rock bottom.
However, demand for vaccine doses is now outpacing supply in some municipalities, throwing rollout schedules into uncertainty, and the central government is now warning that they may need to slow down instead. The slowdown is not attributed to a supply shortfall from manufacturers but rather logistical complications, and the perception that the ambitious inoculation program is hitting a bump is once again raising questions about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Additionally, an issue that hit particularly close to home played a factor in the election results: the Olympics.
The Suga administration’s insistence on hosting the games, despite infections not having been brought under control, became a weak point for the LDP’s Tokyo chapter — it did not mention the Olympics in its campaign pledge, whereas Tomin First pledged to host the games without spectators. The CDP called for it to be either scrapped or postponed, while the JCP argued it should be canceled altogether. Even though public support for the sporting event has improved, the public remains anxious over proceeding with it, as daily cases are increasing again.
“Toward the end of the assembly election campaign, negative views of the Suga administration over issues such as vaccine shortfalls and Olympic spectators might have had a negative impact on the LDP’s Tokyo chapter,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo.
“There could be debates within the LDP over whether it would be OK to put Suga in charge of the Lower House election. … The LDP situation in the general election is becoming a bit volatile.”
Unlike other party leaders, Suga did not make campaign speeches for LDP candidates, other than making a remark at a ceremony to kick off the election.
Although Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato explained that Suga was prioritizing his official duties, the prime minister’s absence from the campaign hints at the LDP’s reluctance to put him at the forefront. The LDP instead relied on Cabinet ministers, such as Taro Kono and Shinjiro Koizumi, and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to support the party’s candidates.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s last-minute, surprise appearances with Tomin First candidates on Saturday, the day before the election, came as a headwind to LDP candidates in battleground districts. Koike, a career politician who founded and now serves as special adviser to the Tokyo-centric party, is known for her knack of grasping popular trends early on and rallying the public to her side.
Out of respect for maintaining positive working relationships with the LDP and Komeito, as well as her hospitalization due to overwork, it was believed Koike would not take part in campaigning.
Taimei Yamaguchi, the LDP’s election strategy chief, revealed to reporters Sunday night that the LDP had a positive projection for its performance in the election until Thursday. On Friday, the day Koike returned to work from a brief leave of absence and held a news conference, Yamaguchi said the party’s outlook turned for the worse.
“I don’t think we can say (Koike’s appearance) had no impact,” Yamaguchi said. “We need to make use of this experience.”
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