The government’s top spokesman welcomed Monday victories by candidates aligned with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a pair of lower house by-elections, while remaining reticent over whether the results could convince Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to dissolve the chamber for a general election early next year.
Statements by ruling and opposition lawmakers have suggested Abe could be considering a lower house election in early 2017, but his administration has yet to confront a number of thorny issues that could exert a greater influence on his decision than Sunday’s wins in single-seat districts in Tokyo and Fukuoka Prefecture.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed at a news conference Monday that the decision to dissolve the lower house is up to Abe alone.
Suga said Sunday’s victories in the districts, both previously held by the party, reflect voters’ endorsement of “the way we are managing policy, working to rebuild the economy and handling risk.”
Since strengthening the ruling parties’ control of the upper chamber in July’s House of Councillors election, Abe has reshuffled his Cabinet.
The ruling parties have passed more economic measures under the banner of the “Abenomics” policy strategy and initiated debate toward ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
But the Abe administration will likely face clashes with the opposition over potential reform of the Japanese Constitution and a decision on whether to expand the duties of Self-Defense Forces personnel on a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
The victory for 59-year-old Masaru Wakasa in the Tokyo No. 10 district seat formerly held by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is an apparent sign the LDP is moving to rebuild its rocky relationship with Koike and looking to woo her wider spectrum of supporters in the next nationwide election.
“Gov. Koike’s support made this election easy for us to fight,” LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai told reporters after meeting with Wakasa on Monday morning at party headquarters.
Koike drew ire within the LDP, as did a number of her supporters including Wakasa, when she ran in July’s gubernatorial election without the party’s blessing. She in turn stumped for Wakasa, who only had the official endorsement of the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, in the by-election.
Nikai indicated Monday the LDP may reconsider a plan to kick seven members of Tokyo’s ward-level assemblies out of the party as punishment for having supported Koike in the gubernatorial race.
Wakasa defeated 40-year-old Yosuke Suzuki, a former journalist with public broadcaster NHK, who had the backing of the main opposition Democratic Party as well as the Japanese Communist Party, Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party.
The Fukuoka No. 6 district was won by 37-year-old Jiro Hatoyama, the son of former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama who held the seat until his death in June.
The LDP gave its endorsement to Hatoyama after his victory became certain. Hatoyama was competing for the party’s support with 35-year-old Ken Kurauchi, secretary to an upper house lawmaker.
Up against Hatoyama and Kurauchi was opposition-backed Fumiko Arai, 49, a former staffer at Japan’s Consulate General in Chennai, India.
The failure of the opposition-backed candidates in both districts came in spite of the Democratic Party’s leadership change in August, which installed former administrative reform minister Renho as leader.
But the LDP’s executive acting secretary general, Hakubun Shimomura, indicated Monday the party could lose as many as 86 seats from single-seat districts in the next lower house election if the Democratic Party and three smaller opposition parties stick to their strategy of backing united candidates as they did Sunday.
Shimomura told a party seminar the number was based on July’s upper house election, where the strategy saw opposition-backed candidates win 11 of the 32 contested single-seat districts.
Following the by-elections, the LDP holds 293 of the 475 total seats in the lower house. Combined with Komeito’s 35 seats, the coalition holds more than two-thirds of the chamber.