TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in his first parliamentary electoral test as chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led the party to mixed results in two by-elections on Sunday (Oct 24).
The results of the by-elections for Upper House seats in Shizuoka and Yamaguchi prefectures are closely watched as a bellwether of the LDP's public support, and as a precursor to the general election on Oct 31.
Both seats were vacated by LDP incumbents who resigned to run in other races.
The ruling party lost the seat in Shizuoka. Opposition-backed candidate Shinnosuke Yamazaki, 40, a former Shizuoka prefecture assembly member, beat LDP candidate Yohei Wakabayashi, 49, who was formerly mayor of the city of Gotemba.
An unnamed LDP executive told public broadcaster NHK: "It's a close battle and it was a shame that we couldn't win. It hurts that Prime Minister Kishida was defeated in the first election that he himself supported.
"However, there are local factors at hand, and so the result may not be indicative of the whole country."
The loss will be cause for concern for Mr Kishida, 64, who has personally campaigned for Mr Wakabayashi at least twice. On paper, he also ought to have been able to coast to victory on the back of a popularity boost that typically comes with a "honeymoon period" for new prime ministers.
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times: "This is bad news for the LDP, given that Shizuoka is relatively urban and might portend a shift away from the LDP among urban voters. The result is also proof that opposition collaboration can pay off."
The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) had joined hands with the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) to endorse Mr Yamazaki, while a third candidate in the race failed to gain much traction.
CDP secretary-general Tetsuro Fukuyama told NHK: "This victory is enormous - the seat belonged to the LDP and the candidate directly received Kishida's support. It is a result of great expectations from the opposition because of widespread disappointment with the LDP, and it will be a momentum for us going into the Lower House election."
In the by-election in Yamaguchi, LDP candidate Tsuneo Kitamura, 66, a former parliamentary industry vice-minister, won handily. The prefecture is a conservative stronghold that has produced eight prime ministers, and the result was widely expected.
Mr Kishida has attracted tepid public interest since becoming prime minister on Oct 4, with Cabinet support ratings among the lowest for a new premier.
The LDP and its coalition partner Komeito are aiming to protect their combined majority in the Lower House election. They go into the poll with 305 seats - the LDP with 276 and the Komeito with 29 - in the 465-seat chamber of Parliament.
A survey by the pro-government Yomiuri newspaper last week showed that the LDP may struggle to win the 233 seats needed for a single-party majority. But it is still likely that the coalition will win a majority, meeting Mr Kishida's conservative target for a victory and giving him the mandate to push on with his election pledges.
For the general election, the CDP has joined hands with smaller parties including the Japanese Communist Party to field a unified candidate, in the belief that they stand a greater chance of winning in a direct one-on-one contest.
"The LDP must be getting nervous because many single-member districts seem to be a tighter race than anticipated," Dr Nakano said.
"The opposition collaboration may be imperfect but it seems to have an impact and more people may be seeking an alternative than the LDP had realised."