Yoshihide Suga has suffered a setback in his first electoral test as Japan's prime minister after opposition parties won a string of victories in byelections across the country.
Defeats for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Hokkaido, Nagano and Hiroshima prefectures will make it hard for Mr Suga to call an early general election and raise the pressure on him ahead of a party leadership contest this year.
But with the prime minister enjoying a bounce in the opinion polls after his recent summit with Joe Biden, the US president, he is not in any immediate danger of losing his job, according to analysts.
“We will humbly accept the judgment of the public and learn whatever lessons there are to be learned,” said Mr Suga after the results were announced on Monday.
The prime minister also promised to speed up Japan's Covid-19 vaccine campaign and inoculate every pensioner in the country by the end of July. The comments came after the government imposed a renewed state of emergency on Tokyo and other large cities last week as cases have risen rapidly.
Mr Suga became prime minister last September after Shinzo Abe, the country's long-serving leader, was forced to step down due to ill health.
In a closely watched upper house race in Hiroshima prefecture, the opposition beat the LDP candidate by 48 per cent to 44 per cent. The election was held after the LDP incumbent was found guilty of buying votes.
In Hokkaido’s 2nd district, the opposition won with 44 per cent of the vote after the LDP declined to endorse a candidate. In the contest for an upper house seat in Nagano, the opposition beat the LDP by 55 per cent to 43 per cent.
"They are extremely severe results," said Hakubun Shimomura, chair of the LDP's policy research council. "People are telling us with their votes that they want a sharper response to Covid-19, including on vaccines."
Japan has struggled to mount an effective inoculation campaign, giving a first dose to a little over 1 per cent of the population.
However, the Suga administration still has a positive approval rating, and Takao Toshikawa, a political commentator, said the byelection results would not threaten the prime minister's position.
“Looking at the polls, it’s not the case that the population in general is turning against the Suga administration over its handling of Covid-19,” he said. “Losing the elections is a negative, but it doesn’t undermine Suga as a unifying force within the LDP.”
Mr Toshikawa said the biggest loser was one of Mr Suga's main rivals: Fumio Kishida, the former foreign secretary who led the LDP campaign in Hiroshima prefecture. "This almost completely knocks Kishida out of the race to succeed Suga," Mr Toshikawa said.
With no other viable candidate likely to stand, Mr Suga is the favourite to win re-election as LDP party leader in September, and to continue as prime minister.
Mr Suga must call a general election by October 22nd. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021