Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party appear to be invincible at the national level, with no serious political rivals in sight.
But at the local level, dissatisfaction with Abe and his party’s policies and leadership style is growing. LDP-backed candidates lost key elections in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, in January and Shiga Prefecture earlier this week, and face tough campaigns this autumn in Fukushima and Okinawa prefectures.
Those elections are increasingly seen as de facto local referendums on Abe’s decision to promote nuclear power, in the case of Fukushima, and build a replacement base for the U.S. Marine base at Futenma in northern Okinawa. Losses by an Abe-backed candidate in one or both elections could bode ill for LDP candidates in local elections next spring.
The reasons for the LDP’s problems at the local level are varied. They include anger over the way the party handled the debate to reinterpret the Constitution to permit collective self-defense, and the sexist heckling of a female member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly by an LDP member or members.
In the Shiga gubernatorial and the Nago mayoral elections earlier this year, there was also anger over the way the Abe administration treated local voters. In both cases, LDP lawmakers campaigned on behalf of the LDP candidate by promising lots of money for pet projects, leaving the impression, even among supporters, that they were simply trying to buy off voters.
In Shiga, the party miscalculated the degree of local resentment caused by Abe’s pro-nuclear stance, public concern over collective self-defense, and anger toward the sexist remarks made in the Tokyo assembly. It also erred in assuming voters would overlook the LDP-backed candidate’s lack of name recognition if he played up his close connections to the central government.
With the doubling of the consumption tax to 10 percent likely to be completed next year, consumers and small businesses are hurting and the LDP and its opponents are laying plans for next spring’s nationwide local elections.
LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said late last week that the party’s campaign pledge would be to enact new tax reforms in areas suffering from depopulation.
Whether this kind of economic support will be enough to overcome voter unease and opposition to other issues is now shaping up to be the key question of the 2015 elections.