• Bloomberg, Kyodo


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s candidate lost the Saga gubernatorial election to a rival backed by the agriculture sector in a blow to his plans to shake up the farm industry.

Yoshinori Yamaguchi, 49, a former Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry official, won a close battle in a four-man race in the southwestern prefecture, supported by agricultural cooperative members and some LDP local assembly members opposed to Abe’s planned farming reforms.

Yamaguchi secured the backing of the prefecture’s powerful agricultural cooperative, which has long supported the LDP but fiercely opposes Abe’s farming reforms aimed at overhauling the umbrella organization for agricultural groups across the country and giving local cooperatives more freedom in their operations.

He secured 182,795 votes, while the ruling coalition-backed candidate, Keisuke Hiwatashi, a 45-year-old former mayor of the city of Takeo, got 143,720 votes.

The election was another defeat for Abe’s ruling party after candidates supported by the LDP lost in the Okinawa and Shiga gubernatorial races last year. The defeat could bode ill for the administration ahead of nationwide local elections this spring.

Neither Hiwatashi nor Yamaguchi focused on issues surrounding a nuclear plant in Saga or deployment of U.S. Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft at the prefecture’s Ground Self-Defense Force base.

The other two candidates were university professor Yukihiro Shimatani, 59, and former home-building company operator Yoshitaka Isagai, 44.

Abe had said his landslide victory in the Lower House election last month was a mandate to accelerate his economic policy, which includes introducing more competition in agriculture and pushing ahead with Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal.

Abe faces resistance from the farm lobby, which opposes free trade concessions it views as damaging to the country’s aging farming population.

Disagreement over farm and auto tariffs between the U.S. and Japan, the two largest economies among the dozen TPP nations, is one of the biggest obstacles to a deal. U.S. meat and dairy producers are calling for more access to Japan’s markets, putting more pressure on Japanese producers.

Japanese producers of meat and milk are struggling as the Bank of Japan’s record stimulus pushed the yen to a seven-year low against the dollar last month, boosting the cost of imported livestock feed. Raw milk output is poised to drop to the lowest in three decades as the numbers of both farmers and cows dwindle, increasing the need for imports, Yasuhiro Saito, the president of Fonterra Japan Ltd., a unit of New Zealand’s Fonterra Cooperative Group Ltd., the world’s top dairy exporter, said in December.

Abe’s ruling coalition won 325 seats in the Lower House in the Dec. 14 vote, giving it a two-thirds majority. He doesn’t need to call another election until 2018, which would make him the country’s longest-serving leader in four decades.

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