Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party lost both of the Lower House by-elections held on Sunday in the Okinawa No. 3 and Osaka No. 12 electoral districts. While the outcomes of these by-elections may have reflected the particular situation in each constituency — the dispute in Okinawa over the construction of a replacement airfield for the U.S. Marine’s Air Station Futenma and the strength of Nippon Ishin no Kai in its home turf of Osaka — the government and the ruling coalition parties should still take seriously the first LDP losses in a Diet by-election since Abe returned to the government in 2012 (with the exception of a 2016 race in Kyoto, in which the LDP was unable to field its own candidate).
Along with the nationwide series of local elections, the by-elections have been closely watched as a barometer of voter sentiment ahead of the triennial Upper House election this summer. The results were a severe verdict by voters on the Abe administration and its policies.
The Okinawa by-election was to fill the vacancy created when Denny Tamaki quite as a Lower House member to successfully run in the gubernatorial election last September. Sunday’s victory of a candidate backed by Gov. Tamaki and most opposition parties marks the third time in less than a year that local voters indicated their opposition to the national government’s plan to build an airfield in the Henoko district of Nago to take over Futenma’s functions — following Tamaki’s election as governor and a prefecture-wide referendum in February, in which a majority of Okinawans opposed the land reclamation work taking place off the Henoko coast for the new facility. The government, which is continuing the land reclamation work despite local opposition, needs to reflect on the outcome — and the prospect of building a U.S. military facility that has been clearly rejected by local voters.
The Osaka race was necessitated by the death of an LDP lawmaker elected from the No. 12 constituency. The LDP fielded a nephew of the deceased lawmaker in an effort to keep the seat and Abe visited Osaka last Saturday to stump for the candidate. However, he lost to the contender from Nippon Ishin, which kept up its momentum from the big wins of its local organization Osaka Ishin no Kai in the gubernatorial and mayoral elections in early April. The LDP’s losses in the recent elections mark a stark contrast to its steady gains in the local elections held in other parts of the country.
Sunday’s outcome is no cause for optimism for the opposition camp, which has been dwarfed by Abe’s ruling coalition in all key elections since 2012. While the opposition forces, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party for the People and the Japanese Communist Party, managed to rally behind the winner in the Okinawa election, they failed to field a joint candidate in the Osaka race. That bodes ill for their delayed efforts to coordinate their candidacies in the Upper House election to avert competing against each other — thus raising their chances against the ruling bloc — in the crucial electoral districts in which one seat each is up for grabs.
Meanwhile, the nationwide series of local elections, which also wrapped up Sunday, continued to be marred by sluggish voter turnout and the growing number of mayors and prefectural/municipal assembly members chosen without a vote — in the absence of enough number of candidates to necessitate a contest. The latter problem, blamed on the declining number of people seeking assembly seats amid the rapidly aging and falling population as well as the weakening capabilities of opposition parties to field contenders in the elections, poses a serious threat to the local autonomy system at a time when many of the nation’s regions face severe challenges such as population exoduses to large metropolitan areas.
The turnout for prefectural assembly races, mayoral elections and municipal assembly races fell to record lows. One out of four seats in the assemblies of 41 prefectures up for grabs this month was decided without a vote. The ratio of “no-vote” elections reached 31.4 percent in mayoral elections. The problem was even more serious among smaller municipalities — no-vote elections were held in 45.5 percent of the town and village mayoral races, or 55 of the 121 positions up for election.
Perhaps one bright spot was the growing numbers of female candidates and winners in the local elections — the first nationwide electoral contest since a legislation was enacted — albeit nonbinding — last year urging political parties to equalize the numbers of men and women among their candidates. Women accounted for a record 18.4 percent of the successful candidates in city assembly elections. But that is still well below the levels of many other countries where women’s participation in politics is far more advanced. Much more needs to be done, by both political parties and people willing to run for public office.