Despite a strong victory by an opposition party-backed candidate over his friend and longtime ally in Sunday’s Yokohama mayoral election, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday he will not be changing his plan to seek re-election as Liberal Democratic Party president, a vote which will take place in late September.

But the result is creating concern within the LDP, with some questioning whether continuing with Suga as party leader and prime minister will hurt the party in an upcoming general election.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan-backed Takeharu Yamanaka, 48, won the mayor’s seat by defeating seven other candidates. His main rival was former National Public Safety Commission chair Hachiro Okonogi, 56, who Suga had thrown his support behind.

Yamanaka won 33.6% of the total votes, while Okonogi received 21.6%. Turnout among Yokohama’s more than 3 million eligible voters was 49.05%, up from 37.21% in the previous mayoral election in 2017.

“The result is regrettable. But voters made a judgment about the various problems facing the city, so this is something I humbly accept,” Suga told reporters Monday.

Key LDP figures, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso continue to back Suga in the LDP presidential race, at least for now. Abe is de facto leader of the 96-member Hosoda faction, the LDP’s largest, while Aso controls his own 53-member group, giving them great influence over who gets elected as party president.

But the Yokohama result, which took place on Suga’s home turf — he represents a Yokohama district — is sparking a debate as to whether Suga is the best person to serve as the party’s face in the upcoming Lower House election. This is especially true among younger LDP politicians who are worried about their political future and are less secure in their seats than some veteran lawmakers.

Newly elected Takeharu Yamanaka recieves flowers from supporters in Yokohama on Sunday evening. | KYODO
Newly elected Takeharu Yamanaka recieves flowers from supporters in Yokohama on Sunday evening. | KYODO

Suga continues to do poorly in media opinion polls. Just before Sunday’s election, a poll by Asahi Network News put the Suga Cabinet’s approval rating at 25.8%.

On Monday, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who heads a 46-member faction and who ran and lost against Suga in last year’s LDP presidential election, suggested he would enter the race. Some younger LDP members favor Kishida, and Abe once saw him as his successor. Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, a close ally of Abe, and LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura have publicly indicated they will run.

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

Initially, the Yokohama election’s main issue was whether or not to elect a mayor who supports hosting a casino resort. Of the eight candidates, six, including Yamanaka and Okonogi, opposed plans for a resort in the city’s waterfront Yamashita Pier district.

The controversial project had been approved by the LDP and Komeito-run Yokohama Municipal Assembly and Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, 75, who was one of two candidates running in support of the project.

However, there was strong public opposition to the resort. That turned into anger in January, when the city assembly rejected a referendum on the issue despite over 190,000 signatures in support of a plebiscite. Hayashi had campaigned for mayor in 2017 without making her position clear, saying the issue was a blank slate. She then announced her support for the project in August 2019.

Former National Public Safety Commission chair Hachiro Okonogi speaks to reporters in Yokohama on Sunday evening. | KYODO
Former National Public Safety Commission chair Hachiro Okonogi speaks to reporters in Yokohama on Sunday evening. | KYODO

Okonogi and Yamanaka ran against the project. But while Yamanaka said he was strongly against it, Okonogi — who as a Diet member voted for legalizing casino projects — said only that he would cancel the Yamashita Pier plan. This led some anti-casino voters to wonder if he might approve one somewhere else in the city if elected.

Just before the election, anger and frustration over the government’s coronavirus response emerged as a key voter concern. Yamanaka, a data scientist whose work includes analyzing the efficacy of vaccines against coronavirus variants, capitalized on his expertise with criticisms 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 takes office just one month before the central government begins inviting interested local governments to submit their plans for a 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 licenses. But none of the other candidates have faced the kind of intense local opposition to their casino project proposals that Yokohama has experienced.

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