The ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost all three seats up for grabs in Japanese parliamentary elections Sunday, dealing a significant blow to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as he considers the timing of a general election that must be held by this fall.

The results of the first national elections since Suga took office in September last year reflect voters’ discontent with the government’s coronavirus response as well as scandals that bought about two of the elections, and the defeats are likely to bring Suga’s leadership into question.

Candidates backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan won a re-held House of Councillors election in the Hiroshima constituency, an Upper House by-election in the Nagano constituency and a House of Representatives by-election for the No. 2 single-seat district in Hokkaido.

“Voters passed a severe judgement on the Suga Cabinet,” said CDP secretary-general Tetsuro Fukuyama. “It is the result of a buildup of people’s discontent over scandals involving politics and money and the novel coronavirus response.”

The elections in Hiroshima and Hokkaido were called as then-LDP lawmakers vacated the seats over vote-buying and bribe-taking scandals.

“We will reflect seriously on the voters’ judgment,” Taimei Yamaguchi, the LDP’s election campaign chief, said at the party’s headquarters.

Political analysts view the two Upper House polls in which the LDP fielded a candidate as a bellwether for a general election Suga could call before his term as LDP president — and hence his time as prime minister — expires on Sept. 30.

The four-year term of Lower House members ends on Oct. 21.

The approval rating for Suga’s Cabinet, which stood at around 70% shortly after he succeeded Shinzo Abe last September, plunged to below 40% in February and has since hovered around that level amid a slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

With the recent COVID-19 resurgence, Suga has largely focused on arranging antivirus measures, including deciding on a state of emergency for Tokyo and three other prefectures from Sunday, and did not travel to Hiroshima and Nagano prefectures to make campaign speeches in support of LDP candidates.

Haruko Miyaguchi, a 45-year-old former broadcaster backed by the CDP, the Democratic Party for the People and the Social Democratic Party, won the election for an Upper House seat in Hiroshima in a close race against LDP candidate Hidenori Nishita, a 39-year-old former trade ministry official.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan candidate Jiro Hata (left), who was also backed by other opposition parties, is congratulated by a supporter after winning an Upper House by-election in Nagano on Sunday. | KYODO
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan candidate Jiro Hata (left), who was also backed by other opposition parties, is congratulated by a supporter after winning an Upper House by-election in Nagano on Sunday. | KYODO

CDP candidate Jiro Hata, 51, also backed by other opposition parties, secured the Nagano seat after leading against Yutaka Komatsu, 59, an LDP candidate also backed by the Komeito party.

Another CDP candidate, Kenko Matsuki, 62, a former lawmaker also backed by other opposition parties, won the Hokkaido No. 2 district seat. The LDP did not field its own candidate.

Voter turnout was the lowest on record for Nagano and Hokkaido at 44.40% and 30.46%, respectively, while that in Hiroshima stood at 33.61%, the second lowest on record, according to election boards.

The Hiroshima election was held as Anri Kawai, the wife of former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, lost her seat after a court found her guilty of vote-buying in the 2019 Upper House election, and her election win was nullified.

The couple resigned as lawmakers after leaving the LDP ahead of their arrests in June last year on vote-buying charges.

The Nagano election was held as former land minister Yuichiro Hata, a CDP lawmaker who held the seat, died in December after becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Pre-election polls showed Jiro Hata, the younger brother of Yuichiro, has secured the backing of more than 90% of CDP supporters and most of the supporters of other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party.

The Hokkaido by-election was called as former farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa resigned as a lawmaker before being indicted over bribes he received from a representative of an egg producer.

Among the candidates were Japan Innovation Party candidate Izumi Yamazaki, 48, independent Yoshiko Tsuruha, 53, and lawyer Takanori Nagatomo, 52.

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