TOKYO - Japan's second-most populous city Yokohama elected an opposition candidate as its mayor on Sunday (Aug 22) in a major setback for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga going into a general election later this year.
Mr Suga's Lower House constituency covers the bustling bayside city of 3.8 million people, and the repudiation by voters of his backed candidate on his home turf serves as a clear warning to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that it will face a tough electoral battle in the months ahead.
Voters elected Dr Takeharu Yamanaka, 48, a former professor of health data science at Yokohama City University, as their new mayor in a crowded field of eight candidates.
Backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Dr Yamanaka ran on a platform that was against integrated resorts (IR) and critical of Mr Suga's Covid-19 policies.
The government's casino development plans to boost the economy have been particularly contentious in Yokohama, where constituents have petitioned against it.
The LDP-backed candidate was Mr Hachiro Okonogi, 56, a close ally of Mr Suga's who quit the Lower House and his Cabinet post as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission to run for mayor, likewise on an anti-IR platform as a majority of residents were against casinos.
Incumbent three-term mayor Fumiko Hayashi, 75, who was in favour of casinos, had received the LDP's backing before Sunday's poll, which exposed the chasm within the ruling party over its stance on IRs, which had been promoted by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a key prong of his tourism strategy.
The shellacking in Yokohama is further proof of Mr Suga's weak political standing, with his approval in media opinion surveys having plunged to new depths.
Experts said the writing is on the wall. Media reports on Sunday said the result sent "reverberations" through Nagatacho, Japan's political nerve centre.
Pundits expected the race to be too close to call, and broached the possibility of a run-off election, given that the victor must win at least 25 per cent of the votes cast. But results from exit polls were so decisive that Dr Yamanaka could declare victory immediately after voting closed.
Under Mr Suga, the LDP had already failed to win three national by-elections in April, and also performed more poorly than expected in a Tokyo assembly election last month.
The political calendar ahead is packed to the hilt.
The LDP will formally begin campaigning for its presidential election after the expiry of an ongoing Covid-19 state of emergency on Sept 12, with the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics from Tuesday to Sept 5 in between. A poll is likely on Sept 29.
Mr Suga will first need to be re-elected as LDP president if he were to lead the party into a general election, as four-year Lower House lawmaker terms are set to expire on Oct 21. This means a poll must be held by November at the latest.
"I'm not sure how hard the LDP leaders who declared support for Suga in the incoming presidential election are committed to their words," Dr Sota Kato, a research director at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think-tank, told The Straits Times.
"The loss of the Yokohama mayoral election alone may not impact his destiny, but since the LDP has lost virtually all elections recently, it will reaffirm LDP backbenchers' belief that they cannot win with Suga as a leader," he added. "The result will definitely cause ripples in the LDP toward its presidential election."
In his victory speech, Dr Yamanaka declared that Yokohama will drop out of the IR race.
Until Sunday's poll, the port city was seen as a clear frontrunner to host one of Japan's first three IRs.
The application process will last from October until April next year for municipalities keen to host IRs - mega-complexes with casinos, hotels, shopping malls, entertainment facilities and exhibition spaces. The first IRs are due to launch by around 2027.
Yokohama had been deciding between consortiums led by Genting Singapore and Macau's Melco Resorts and Entertainment, with Genting seen as the likely winner.
"The process may have been nothing more than an exercise in futility," Mr Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs at Las Vegas gaming and hospitality consultancy Global Market Advisors, told The Straits Times.
Noting that Yokohama had conducted a lengthy process culminating in a request-for-proposal, he added: "Its potential departure from the market would leave a big void for an IR in the Greater Tokyo region."