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Japan PM's LDP set to lose three Diet seats to main opposition party

Ruling party faces electoral headwinds in wake of slush fund scandal

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi replies to reporters with the party set to lose three seats in lower house by-elections on April 28. (Photo by Sae Kamae)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is set to lose three seats in national by-elections Sunday, including Shimane Prefecture, known as a conservative stronghold, exit polls showed, delivering a harsh indictment on the scandal-hit LDP.

The leading opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, led by left-leaning lower house lawmaker Kenta Izumi, is certain to acquire all three seats by obtaining support from anti-LDP voters, according to the polls.

The House of Representatives by-elections were held as the ruling LDP has come under intense scrutiny after some of its factions neglected to report portions of their income from fundraising parties and maintained slush funds for years for their members.

Failure to secure victory in Shimane could undermine Kishida's political footing and prod LDP lawmakers to attempt to oust him from power before the next general election, making it unlikely he will run in the party's presidential race around September.

Seats in Shimane and Nagasaki prefectures, as well as one in Tokyo, were up for grabs in the first national elections since the scandal came to light late last year. The conservative LDP previously held all the vacated seats.

LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi, its No. 2 figure after Kishida, told reporters in Tokyo, "We will humbly accept the results" of Sunday's by-elections, adding that the party "needs to work as one to grapple with the challenge."

With the scandal eroding public trust in politics and dampening support for the LDP, it did not field candidates in the Tokyo No. 15 and Nagasaki No. 3 districts and focused on defending the seat in the Shimane No. 1 constituency in the western prefecture.

Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Kishida's predecessor, was compelled to give up running for the LDP presidential race after the party lost three by-elections in April 2021, as his leadership was called into question regarding responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

LDP candidates have long held power in Shimane. The prefecture is the home territory of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, a legendary LDP kingmaker who exerted a powerful influence on Japanese politics in the postwar era.

Approval ratings for Kishida's Cabinet have plummeted to their lowest levels over the slush funds scandal since it was launched in October 2021, falling far below 30 percent, a threshold widely recognized as the "danger level" for a government.

The by-election in Shimane, which follows the death of former lower house speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda in November, became a one-on-one battle between candidates from the LDP and the CDPJ.

LDP candidate Norimasa Nishikori, a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat, was expected to fall behind Akiko Kamei, a former lower house lawmaker of the CDPJ and daughter of a former director general of the now-defunct National Land Agency.

Hosoda, who held the seat in Shimane since the current election system was introduced in 1996, served as leader of the largest faction within the LDP at the center of the latest political funds scandal for seven years from 2014.

Kamei said her victory in Shimane, called a "conservative kingdom," sends a "big message" to Kishida, who has also been criticized for failing to take effective measures to achieve wage growth exceeding sharp price hikes. Her father was an LDP member.

The by-election in Tokyo was due to a separate scandal involving a former LDP lawmaker convicted of a campaign finance offense related to a mayoral race in April 2023. A total of nine candidates threw their hats into the ring.

Hirotada Ototake, a Japanese writer born without arms and legs, is forecast to be defeated in the capital by Natsumi Sakai, a former assembly member of Tokyo's Koto Ward, despite receiving the backing of a regional party founded by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

The outcome indicated a decrease in Koike's political influence and popularity. Once viewed as a frontrunner to be Japan's first female prime minister, a candidate supported by her party also lost in an April mayoral election in Tokyo's Meguro Ward.

Koike, a former lower house lawmaker who was Japan's first female defense minister, is believed to be running for a third term in the gubernatorial election in July.

In the by-election in Nagasaki, triggered after an LDP lawmaker stepped down in January over the slush funds scandal, Katsuhiko Yamada, a candidate from the CDPJ, is projected to beat his rival from the Japan Innovation Party, another major opposition force.

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