With Sunday’s double victory in Tokyo and Fukuoka by-elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might be feeling relieved — but not exactly over the moon.
At the very least, the commanding victories by two Liberal Democratic Party-affiliated candidates in the Lower House races provided him with a perfect excuse to claim that his Abenomics economic policy mix, as well as his ongoing push for Diet approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, received a strong public endorsement.
“We will continue to do our utmost to revitalize the economy to live up to the mandate given us by the voters in the by-elections,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday.
But experts said the seemingly encouraging outcome of the polls will do little to embolden Abe into calling a snap election — a step seen as vital to further cementing his power base.
The LDP victory, they say, was undermined by record low voter turnouts and — in Tokyo’s case particularly — spurred less by genuine support for Abe’s national policies than by the enormous popularity of charismatic Gov. Yuriko Koike.
The LDP’s Masaru Wakasa, 59, who had the strong backing of Koike, won in the Tokyo No. 10 district, garnering 75,755 votes — far more than his Democratic Party-endorsed rival Yosuke Suzuki, who received 47,141 votes.
Jiro Hatoyama, son of late internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama, secured his father’s Fukuoka No. 6 district by racking up 106,531 votes, trouncing the DP-endorsed runner-up, Fumiko Arai, who received 40,020 votes.
Although Hatoyama ran as an independent, the LDP endorsed him minutes after his victory was reported.
Voter turnout for the Tokyo race was a record low 34.85 percent, while Fukuoka saw just 45.46 percent cast a ballots.
Observers say the tepid turnout in Tokyo reflected voter cynicism over the peculiar direction the by-election took as it progressed.
Throughout the campaign, Koike went all-out to support Wakasa — one of her staunchest allies — even going so far as to declare herself his “chief cheerleader.”
The result, according to political science professor Norihiko Narita of Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, was that the election’s aspect as a showdown between Abe’s ruling coalition and the opposition bloc largely escaped public attention.
“Instead, it became a vote on Koike’s metropolitan policy,” Narita said. “Those who were interested in showing their support for Koike may have bothered to go vote, but those who weren’t probably had a hard time coming up with a reason why they should.”
In Fukuoka, the odds were stacked in favor of heir apparent Hatoyama from the get-go — a strong electoral advantage in a country that continues to vote for hereditary politicians.
All things considered, then, “it’s not really that the LDP won the race, but rather that it didn’t lose it,” Narita said.
“It didn’t accelerate Abe’s plan to call a snap election,” he added. “But at the same time, it certainly put no brakes on it. So for now, Abe will likely pursue the initial plan he had in mind” in regards to dissolving the Lower House.
Instead, it may have been Koike who was the biggest winner.
Having her ally keep the Tokyo No. 10 district seat, which she held before becoming governor, allows for a potentially easy return to national politics after the end of her time as governor — a possible prelude to any bid to become Japan’s first female prime minister, Narita said.
In further testament to her popularity, Koike revealed Sunday night that about 4,000 people had applied for her soon-to-be-launched private “political school,” adding even more fuel to speculation that she may form a new political party.
Meanwhile, the outcome of the by-elections was widely seen as boding ill for DP President Renho.
Experts say the double defeat will likely add to simmering skepticism within the party over her leadership abilities, putting her in a tighter spot as she continues to grapple with criticism over her dual nationality flap.
Renho, who during her campaign last month for party president had touted her ability to give the DP a striking image makeover, was “chosen as leader not because she is reliable and experienced as a politician, but because she is popular with the public and many hoped she would help the party win elections,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a political science professor at Toyo University.
Yakushiji described Renho as a virtual “puppet” of DP secretary-general and former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, her mentor.
Now that Renho has failed to help DP candidates win, “a big question mark hangs over her raison d’etre as party president,” Yakushiji said.
Renho’s political shortcomings appeared most evident in the way she handled the DP’s electoral tie-up with other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, in promoting Suzuki and Arai.
While urging the JCP to withdraw its own candidates, the DP declined the far-left party’s endorsement of the two — an apparent bid to distance itself from communists and avoid antagonizing conservative voters.
“The JCP stands by the position that opposition parties can only defeat the Abe administration by waging an ‘all-out’ tie-up that is based on mutual trust and respect,” high-ranking JCP executive Akira Koike tweeted after Sunday’s election. “I believe we need to reflect thoroughly on whether we managed to do that during our campaign this time.”
Toyo University’s Yakushiji said that after the electoral drubbing the DP is in desperate need of introspection.
“The DP should do some thorough soul-searching and take politics more seriously,” he said. “It shouldn’t just go for popularity. Fail to do so, and the LDP will be unstoppable.”
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