In a stunning political setback for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on his home turf, opposition party-backed Takeharu Yamanaka defeated seven other candidates in the race to become Yokohama mayor.

The victory by Yamanaka, 48, who was endorsed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and received the support of other major opposition parties, was a crushing personal and political blow for Suga. The prime minister, who represents a district in Yokohama in the Lower House, had thrown his support behind his longtime friend and supporter, former National Public Safety Commission chair Hachiro Okonogi, 56.

Yamanaka’s victory also puts the brakes on Yokohama’s efforts to host a casino resort in the city’s waterfront Yamashita Pier district. Of the eight candidates, six, including Okonogi and Yamanaka, opposed the plans, approved by the Yokohama Municipal Assembly and outgoing Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, 75, who was one of two candidates running in support.

But voters were also angry with Suga and the government’s coronavirus response. That became a central issue in the closing days of the campaign, one Yamanaka capitalized on with his criticism of the central government’s vaccine rollout and failed efforts to contain infections.

“The government’s coronavirus policy and promising to pull out of the casino project are what resonated with Yokohama voters,” Yamanaka said following his victory Sunday evening.

Yamanaka announced he was strongly opposed to casino resorts, while Okonogi, who as a Diet member had supported legislation that legalized casino gambling in Japan, said he would cancel the Yamashita Pier plan. But this raised suspicions among anti-casino voters that Okonogi might leave the door open for a future project somewhere else in the city.

The inability of Suga, already on the hot seat with his Cabinet’s approval rate dropping to record low levels, to get Okonogi elected is expected to accelerate debate this week among Liberal Democratic Party members. Many were already concerned about whether the prime minister is the best choice to lead the party as it looks toward a party presidential election and a general election in the coming months.

Prior to Sunday’s election, media polls taken in the first half of August showed the Suga administration with a support rate of between 28% (Asahi Shimbun poll) and 35% (Yomiuri Shimbun poll). While key party figures, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, have said they would back Suga’s continuation as LDP president, there have been movements by others in recent days to challenge him.

On Tuesday, Suga said he plans to stand in the LDP presidential election. So far, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, a close ally of Abe, and LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura have indicated they will also run. Another probable candidate is former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who lost to Suga in the September 2020 election. Kishida is expected to formally announce his candidacy by Thursday.

Okonogi’s loss could also spur others, including Taro Kono, who is overseeing the country’s vaccination rollout, to challenge Suga. Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who was voted in a Jiji Press poll last month and a Yomiuri Shimbun poll earlier this month as the top pick to replace Suga (Kono finished second), was seen as another possible candidate. However Ishiba, who also ran and lost to Suga in last year’s presidential race, indicated on his blog Friday that he would not run this time.

The LDP is expected to fix the schedule for its presidential election on Thursday. The party’s presidential term finishes on Sept. 30, while Lower House members’ terms are set to expire on Oct. 21.

In Yokohama, the main issue was whether to elect a mayor who would oppose or approve a casino resort. In January, the LDP and Komeito-led city assembly, with Hayashi’s support, rejected a referendum on the issue, sparking anger. The project faced powerful opponents, led by the “Don of Yokohama” and former Yokohama Harbor Transportation Association chairman, 90-year-old Yukio Fujiki.

Fujiki, who also served as political mentor to Suga and Okonogi, has long fought against the Yamashita Pier casino project and threw his support behind Yamanaka. During a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan earlier this month, he called incumbent Mayor Hayashi a puppet of Suga for agreeing to the casino project after campaigning in the mayoral 2017 election by saying only it was up for discussion rather than voicing her opposition directly, and then saying in August 2019 it would go ahead.

Okonogi takes office just one month before the central government begins inviting interested local governments to submit their plans for an integrated casino resort on Oct. 1. The bidding process closes on April 28, 2022, and a maximum of three locations will be awarded a casino license.

Wakayama, Osaka, and Nagasaki prefectures are also in the running to win one of Japan’s first casino resort locations. None of the other candidates face the kind of intense local opposition to their casino project proposals that Yokohama has experienced.

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