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Japan's Ruling Party Loses Regional Election

Japan's Ruling Party Loses Regional Election


TOKYO--Japan's ruling party suffered a surprise setback in a regional election, exposing new political weakness in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following his controversial push to ease restrictions on the country's military.

Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party was defeated in a vote Sunday to fill the open governor's seat in western Shiga prefecture, following a hard-fought campaign where opponents worked to capitalize on the recent drop in the prime minister's public-support ratings. Beyond the military issue, Mr. Abe's opponents used the race to campaign against his unpopular plan to restart idled nuclear reactors three years after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

Taizo Mikazuki, a former member of parliament from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, won the slot left vacant by a retiring two-term incumbent in the prefecture near Kyoto. The 43-year-old prevailed despite heavy campaigning for his chief opponent by national LDP leaders.

In his campaign, Mr. Mikazuki attacked Mr. Abe's plan to alter some elements of Japan's postwar pacifism, and he vowed to try to block the resumption of nuclear reactors in a nearby prefecture. "I would like to make this election as the first step to create a society without depending on nuclear energy," he said in a July 11 stump speech.

With nearly all the half-million votes counted, Mr. Mikazuki won 46% to the LDP candidate's 44%, with a third-party candidate picking up the rest.

The LDP electoral stumble comes after a series of public-opinion polls showed the support rate for Mr. Abe's administration falling below 50% for the first time since he took office after a landslide victory in December 2012. Much of that recent slip followed his decision to move forward with a plan to reinterpret Japan's postwar pacifist constitution to allow the country's self-defense forces to play a more-active role in policing the region, in alliance with the U.S. military.

Mr. Abe retains tremendous political strength, and the loss in one regional election won't likely do much to undermine his clout. His party commands large majorities in both chambers of parliament, and won't face national elections for another two years. His support rate, while diminished, remains considerably higher than the parade of weak, short-lived leaders who preceded him. In Japan, as in the U.S., local elections hinge as much on specific local issues, and it is hard to discern a national trend from one regional contest.

"This doesn't necessarily lead to a decline in the government's power, since the economy is still in good shape," said Naoto Nonaka, professor of political science, at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. "But the outcome might reflect questions among voters about the hasty way the government approved" Mr. Abe's new defense program, he added.

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