The Democratic Party of Japan was cruising Sunday night to a clear victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, taking over as the No. 1 force from the Liberal Democratic Party.
The DPJ, led by Yukio Hatoyama, is now poised to move on to the next step — winning control of the central government in the upcoming Lower House election.
Prime Minister Taro Aso’s LDP suffered a devastating defeat, losing not only its leading position in the assembly for the first time in 40 years but Kyodo News projected that the party also lost the decisive majority it has held with its junior coalition partner New Komeito.
The loss, along with last week’s defeat in the Shizuoka gubernatorial election, will likely add fuel to the growing fire within the LDP to bring Aso down and replace him with a more popular leader before the Lower House election that must be held no later than October.
Whether Aso can keep the mounting resignation calls at bay and finally demonstrate his leadership by dissolving the house and calling a snap election will be the main focus this week.
Norihiko Narita, president of Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, said public criticism will only grow worse if the LDP switches leaders again — Aso is the fourth prime minister since the last general election in September 2005 — and the party faces a no-win situation without majority in the Tokyo assembly.
“Losing the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly would be a disastrous defeat for the LDP,” Narita said. “It will be hell” whether the LDP keeps Aso or not.
According to NHK, the DPJ had scooped up 54 seats as of midnight, while the LDP had only 38 and New Komeito 22.
“The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members are the victims of the situation at the national level,” LDP lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa said at the party’s headquarters in Chiyoda Ward. “I feel sorry for them.”
While Sunday’s election was viewed as a preliminary battle for the Lower House campaign, for Tokyo residents it was a chance to hand down an indirect judgment on hawkish Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.
Key issues included the ailing lender Shinginko Tokyo, Ishihara’s pet project that lost more than ¥100 billion in its first three years after opening in April 2005, and the plan to move the popular Tsukiji fish market from Chuo Ward to a highly toxic area in Koto Ward.
Furthermore, Ishihara is keen on Tokyo hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics and has set aside an enormous ¥400 billion to pay for it.
A total of 221 candidates, including 52 women, vied for the 127 seats in the metropolitan assembly. Voter turnout was an unusually high 54.49 percent.
The LDP lost many of the 48 seats it held before the election, despite being the premier force in the assembly since 1969. The DPJ, on the other hand, added significantly to its 34 seats, exit polling and other data showed.
New Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, was expected to hang on to its 22 seats.
Surugadai University’s Narita said the results will impact the general election.
“This Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race is the barometer for the upcoming general election,” he said. “And no other general election since the LDP was established (in 1955) has been the object of this much attention because the people will be choosing which party they want to rule Japan.”
At a polling station in Shibuya Ward, a 62-year-old man who didn’t want his name used said he voted for the DPJ candidate because he thought she gave a good speech.
He also linked the metropolitan assembly race with the upcoming national election.
“Give the DPJ a chance to manage the government, as they’ve been repeatedly saying that they will cut waste,” he said, adding that the ruling bloc has made too many wasteful budgetary allocations.
In Shinagawa Ward, a 35-year-old man who identified himself as Sugimoto also said his vote went to the DPJ.
“I have to admit I haven’t really been following what each (party) has been saying, but I just didn’t want to vote for the LDP,” said Sugimoto, who came to the polling station with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
He said the LDP’s poor performance at the national level affected his choice in the metropolitan election.
Possibly to Aso’s relief, however, others said they see local politics and national politics as separate.
A 72-year-old retired school teacher at the Shinagawa polling station said the LDP’s dubious standing in national politics did not affect his vote in the Tokyo election.
“Although the LDP is in a dire state in national politics, the Tokyo election is a different matter. I voted for the LDP because I like the way things have been generally in the last few years, and there’s no reason to change my opinion,” he said.
Political analysts and insiders say Aso will have an extremely difficult time controlling his party members and keeping his position as leader of the party and the nation if the ruling bloc loses its majority in the Tokyo assembly.
But upon his return Saturday evening from the Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy, Aso met with several LDP lawmakers, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, and reportedly stressed his unwavering intention to remain prime minister and dissolve the Lower House himself regardless of the outcome of the Tokyo race.
The DPJ, meanwhile, was set on submitting a vote of no confidence and a censure motion against Aso in both the Lower and Upper houses as early as Monday. A censure motion is not legally binding, but it was likely to win approval in the opposition-controlled Upper House, which could bring most deliberations in the chamber to a screeching halt.
The binding vote of no confidence, on the other hand, was likely to be rejected in the Lower House, where the ruling LDP-New Komeito bloc holds a comfortable majority.
“I am not sure what the justifiable reason for the submission of a vote of no confidence would be, but the Aso Cabinet has steadily achieved satisfactory results through various policies, including economic measures, and the ruling coalition will stick together and reject it,” stressed Kawamura, the government’s top spokesman.
The DPJ, however, has its own problems stemming from party President Yukio Hatoyama’s fundraising scandal. Hatoyama recently admitted that his political funds management body reported ¥22 million in donations from dead people or from people who deny making any contributions.
Although lawmakers of the ruling bloc happily point out that the scandal is a “body blow” to the DPJ and has triggered public criticism, it does not appear to be doing much damage.
“The people know that Hatoyama is a wealthy man,” Surugadai’s Narita said. “It hasn’t become that big of a deal because people don’t believe that there is dirty money behind the scenes.”
But time is running out for Aso and the ruling bloc to dissolve the Lower House and call the election. With the end of lawmakers’ terms coming up on Sept. 10, he does not have many dates left on the calendar to pick from.
He has between now and the end of the current extended Diet session on July 28 to dissolve the chamber if he is going to call the election for August or early September.
Many key lawmakers in the LDP and New Komeito are against holding the election in early August because they want time to recover from the Tokyo race and to deal with key bills in the Diet, including an organ transplant bill and legislation on inspecting vessels going to and from North Korea.
Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan, said, however, the real reason the ruling bloc wants to push back the election is because it knows it would lose badly if it is held soon.
“The LDP lawmakers are trying to stop Aso from becoming reckless and dissolving the Lower House right after the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race,” Shiratori said. “If Aso makes that desperate move . . . the DPJ could win a majority on its own” and not even need to form a coalition.
The LDP has been groping desperately for a way to boost its support rate by trying to bring in popular figures like Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru as a Lower House candidate.
There is also hope among some party members that outspoken and popular health minister Yoichi Masuzoe will become president of the LDP.
But Shiratori said popular figures are not going to help the party get support.
“Depending on the popularity of an individual is not going to work for the LDP anymore,” Shiratori said. “People want change, just like in the United States where there was a change in government power and a black president was chosen for the first time. People think Japan should change as well.”
Additional reporting by Alex Martin, Mariko Kato and Kazuaki Nagata