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Sliding Cabinet ratings heighten sense of crisis for LDP ahead of Tokyo election

People listen to campaign speeches for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on June 23, 2017. (Mainichi, image partially modified)

Declining approval ratings for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are heightening a sense of crisis among top officials of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as campaigning for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election gets underway.

The election is a head-on clash between Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites first association), a regional political party led by Gov. Yuriko Koike, and established political parties including the LDP. Its outcome could have an impact on Prime Minister Abe's management of his government.

Toshimitsu Motegi, chairman of the LDP's Policy Research Council, was delivering a campaign speech in front of JR Kichijoji Station in Musashino, Tokyo, on the afternoon of June 23, when one of about 100 people listening to his speech jeered at him, "Away with the LDP."

In his speech, Motegi apologized for what is widely perceived as the administration's laxity in its discipline, while emphasizing that Japan's economy has significantly improved since the LDP returned to power in late 2012.

"The economy has undoubtedly improved since the LDP returned to power 4 1/2 years ago," he said. "There are some points that we should reflect on."

The LDP has come under fire over Prime Minister Abe's alleged favoritism in connection with a plan by a school corporation run by a close friend of his to establish a veterinary school in Ehime Prefecture, and the ruling coalition's ramming of a controversial "anti-conspiracy bill" into law.

Under the circumstances, senior LDP members who participated in campaigns for the party's candidates in the metropolitan assembly election cautioned party members against being arrogant.

Prime Minister Abe visited Okinawa Prefecture and Kobe on June 23 and was away from Tokyo. Also away from campaigns for LDP candidates were Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who has come under fire for branding education ministry documents which suggested that the prime minister was involved in the approval of the vet school plan as "anonymous objectionable documents," and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, who is a close aide to Abe and whose name also surfaced in ministry documents related to the Kake scandal.

Hagiuda said in his email magazine, "I'm sorry about what has happened in national politics affecting our party's candidates."

Before and during the previous metropolitan assembly race in 2013, in which the LDP scored a landslide victory, Prime Minister Abe had delivered speeches at about 20 locations. The fact that the schedule for the prime minister's campaign speeches during the current Tokyo assembly race has not been fixed suggests that the LDP leadership is unsure of whether such speeches will benefit the party's candidates.

Prime Minister Abe told reporters in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, where he attended a ceremony to mark the 72nd anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa in the final days of World War II, that the LDP will try its utmost to win the assembly race.

"It's an important local election that will determine the direction of the metropolitan administration. The LDP will appeal to Tokyo residents for support of its policy measure closely related to their livelihoods to make sure as many of our candidates as possible win," the prime minister said.

However, high-ranking officials are already beginning to make statements to minimize the impact of the LDP's possible loss in the election on the party's influence in national politics.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai stressed that the outcome of the metropolitan assembly election has nothing to do with national politics. Yet if the LDP is to lose its position as the largest bloc in the assembly, it could indeed have an impact on national politics.

The results of the past metropolitan assembly races often heralded the outcome of subsequent Diet elections. A typical example is the July 2009 election in which the LDP's strength in the assembly decreased from 48 to 38. In the House of Representatives election held shortly after that, the LDP suffered a crushing defeat and was swept out of power.

The LDP and its ruling coalition partner in the Diet, Komeito, won the 2013 Tokyo assembly election, and scored a landslide victory in the House of Councillors election later that year and regained a majority in the chamber.

No national elections are scheduled to follow the metropolitan assembly race for some time to come. However, there are growing observations within the LDP that if the outcome of the Tokyo election threatens Abe's predominance in national politics, it could adversely affect ongoing discussions on constitutional amendment, which Abe is enthusiastic about.

Komeito has broken off its alliance with the LDP in the metropolitan assembly and joined hands with Tomin First.

"Komeito is the only political party that can link the governor to national politics and play a central role in the metropolitan assembly," Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, said in his first speech in campaigning for the Tokyo assembly election.

However, if the LDP and Komeito clash head-on during campaigning for the Tokyo election, it could leave ill feeling on both sides. In the meantime, Komeito's strategy of separating national politics and metropolitan administration is difficult for voters to understand.

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