OSAKA - The loss by a ruling party candidate in Gifu’s mayoral election over the weekend has spurred speculation that the outcome may deal a blow to a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The 38-year-old Masanao Shibahashi — a former Lower House member from the Democratic Party of Japan (currently known as the Democratic Party) — beat Kenji Nakanishi, the Liberal Democratic Party-backed candidate, by roughly 34,000 voteson Sunday. He won in a city long considered to be one of the most LDP-friendly areas of the country, thanks to the presence of the powerful Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda.
Shibahashi’s victory over six rivals including Nakanishi, 56, has raised questions about whether the outcome may disrupt Noda’s chance to challenge Abe — should she decide to do so — in the LDP presidential race later this year.
Noda was elusive when asked about her thoughts over the loss of an LDP candidate on her electoral turf.
“If there are people who say it will have an influence, there are people who say it won’t,” she said in a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. “I want to move forward steadily and straightforwardly, one step at a time.”
In the past, though, she has proved vulnerable to Shibahashi, having lost to him in the 2009 Lower House election.
For his part, Shibahashi credited his victory to local dissatisfaction with political parties like the LDP.
“I appealed directly to an expanding number of voters who did not fit within the framework of the established parties,” Shibahashi told reporters in Gifu on Monday. “This was a victory for people power.”
The Gifu mayoral loss came in the midst of other setbacks for the LDP at the local level. A party-backed mayoral candidate in the city of Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture, was defeated earlier this month. Last week, Fumiaki Matsumoto, a senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office, was forced to resign after heckling an opposition Diet member who was speaking on recent emergency landings by U.S. military helicopters in Okinawa.
Matsumoto’s resignation came just before Nago voters go to the polls for Sunday’s mayoral election, in which the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in central Okinawa to the Henoko district of Nago is the main issue. The incumbent mayor and city council oppose the move.
Over the next few months, key local elections include the Yamaguchi and Nagasaki gubernatorial elections in February, the Ishikawa governor’s election in March and the Kyoto gubernatorial election in April.
Yamaguchi, Abe’s home base, and Ishikawa and Nagasaki prefectures are considered safe for the LDP, while the LDP-backed candidate for the Kyoto election is expected to draw support from opposition parties other than the Japan Communist Party.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Feb. 5 to reflect the fact that Masanao Shibahashi was a former member of the Democratic Party of Japan.