Sunday’s triple victory by opposition-backed candidates in Hokkaido, Nagano and Hiroshima by-elections had been predicted by local media before the polls closed and may have little immediate impact on the national political landscape.

But the Hiroshima loss in particular could spell trouble for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the ruling parties in the coming weeks as they look to boost their popularity ahead of a general election, which must be held by Oct. 21.

“Regarding yesterday's elections, I humbly accept the judgment of voters,” Suga said Monday morning.

In the Hiroshima Upper House race, Haruko Miyaguchi, a 45-year-old former broadcaster backed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), beat Hidenori Nishita, a 39-year-old former trade ministry official endorsed by the Liberal Democratic Party and backed by Komeito. She got 370,860 votes to Nishita’s 336,924 votes.

The Hiroshima by-election came about because Anri Kawai lost her seat after being found guilty of vote-buying in the 2019 Upper House election. She was arrested in June 2020, found guilty in January and resigned in February. The scandal rocked the Hiroshima political world, and in a Sunday exit poll by Kyodo News, 38% of respondents said that money in politics was the issue they were most concerned about.

More than 90% of voters affiliated with the CDP and DPP voters and more than 80% of Japanese Communist Party members opted for Miyaguchi, while 73% of unaffiliated voters also supported her. Of LDP and Komeito voters, 69% and 75%, respectively, cast their ballots for Nishita, but he only got 17% of unaffiliated voters. Local media polls last week showed Miyaguchi had a slight lead over Nishita.

Despite the loss, experts don’t see Suga resigning or any immediate impact on the larger political situation.

“In the short term, the influence of the (Hiroshima) loss is likely to be small. Although the election was a hot issue in Hiroshima, people nationwide are more interested in COVID-19 countermeasures,” said Masato Kamikubo, a professor of Japanese politics at Ritsumeikan University.

But over the longer term, it could be a different story, he added. This is due to lingering questions over the vote-buying scandal involving Kawai, questions that both the opposition parties, energized by their Hiroshima victory, and the media could pursue in the coming months.

“The scandal involving Kawai is serious and Japan’s media continues to focus on it. Anri was close to Suga, who took the lead in helping her win the Upper House seat in 2019,” Kamikubo said. "There is still information coming out about the scandal, so it’s possible that it could erupt further and become a very big problem right before the LDP presidential election in September."

But while the effect on Suga might be delayed, Sunday’s result is a bitter disappointment and political setback for Fumio Kishida, the LDP Hiroshima chapter chair and a former LDP policy chief and foreign minister. Kishida, who lost to Suga in last year’s LDP presidential election, likely damaged his chances of running again.

Kishida also currently heads the LDP’s 47 member Kochikai faction in the Diet and was in merger talks with other intraparty groups last year. Political journalist Tetsuo Suzuki said that with the Hiroshima loss, some changes could be in the offing.

“The chairman of the Kishida faction, who is Kishida himself, may resign. But I don't think the faction will be dissolved.” Suzuki said, explaining that it's a traditional LDP faction that has had other leaders in the past and is thus likely to survive beyond Kishida.

Haruko Miyaguchi, a former broadcaster backed by three opposition parties, speaks to supporters after winning a seat in the Upper House in a by-election Sunday in Hiroshima. | KYODO
Haruko Miyaguchi, a former broadcaster backed by three opposition parties, speaks to supporters after winning a seat in the Upper House in a by-election Sunday in Hiroshima. | KYODO

Sunday’s other two by-elections were also won by opposition candidates. But the LDP and Komeito only backed a candidate in the Nagano race for an Upper House seat. The victor there was Jiro Hata, 51, who had the endorsement of the CDP and the support of the other major opposition parties. Hata is the younger brother of Yuichiro Hata, the CDP incumbent who died in December due to COVID-19, thus forcing an election.

He won against LDP-backed and Komeito-supported Yutaka Komatsu, 59, in a race he had been widely predicted to win due to sympathy for his brother and the fact that Nagano is known as the “Hata kingdom” — it has been represented by Jiro and Yuichiro, along with their father, the late Tsutomu Hata.

A former LDP member, the elder Hata bolted from the party in 1993 and served as prime minister for two months in 1994 as a member of the Shinseito party.

The third by-election, in Hokkaido's No. 2 electoral district, which includes parts of Sapporo, was a Lower House contest called after former LDP member and agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa was forced to resign. He was indicted on suspicion of accepting bribes from an egg production company while farm minister.

The LDP, determining that it stood no chance of winning due to the scandal, did not field a candidate. The election was won by Kenko Matsuki, a 62-year-old former lawmaker who was backed by the main opposition parties, including the CDP, the DPP and the SDP.

“These were the first national elections since the inauguration of the Suga administration last September, and the voters delivered a serious verdict,” said CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama in a statement following Sunday’s victories. "The CDP is determined to work together with the people to strengthen cooperation with other opposition parties, with the aim of realizing a peaceful transition of power in the upcoming general election."

That, however, could prove difficult. Voter turnout was the lowest on record for Nagano and Hokkaido, at 44.4% and 30.5%, respectively, while in Hiroshima that stood at 33.6%, the second lowest on record. A general election with higher turnout rates may or may not favor opposition candidates.

Kamikubo said that cooperation among the opposition parties, while successful Sunday, may be more difficult when a general election comes.

“The unique electoral characteristics of this race allowed the opposition parties to win. There was the scandal in Hiroshima that favored the opposition. Nagano has long been the 'Hata Kingdom,' not the opposition party kingdom. In Hokkaido, it’s a (CDP) kingdom and the liberal camp there is quite strong," he said.

“The Nagano and Hokkaido elections are special because the opposition camps in both places are unusually strong. In these regions, particularly Hokkaido, the CDP and the Japanese Communist Party also have a history of cooperation. But cooperation in these districts doesn’t strongly influence regions elsewhere.”

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