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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Japan ruling party triumphs in local elections despite criticism over links to Moonies

Japanese prime pinister Fumio Kishida (centre) raises his fist with other party members at the party's annual convention in Tokyo, Japan.
Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida (centre). His LDP party has been victorious in local elections despite criticism over the past year of his party’s links to the Moonies. Photograph: Zuma Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) has won key local elections in the first big electoral test for the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, since damaging revelations emerged about his party’s ties to the Unification church.

LDP candidates triumphed in governor elections in prefectures from Hokkaido in the country’s north to Oita in the south-west on Sunday, raising speculation that Kishida could call a snap general election.

An election for Japan’s powerful local house is not due until October 2025, but some pundits believe Kishida could gamble on an early poll to capitalise on his party’s strong showing at the weekend.

The elections also saw Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation party) extend its influence outside its home turf of Osaka, as the rightwing populists try to establish themselves as a national political force.

The LDP has endured months of criticism over its connections to the Unification church – often referred to as the Moonies – that emerged in the wake of Shinzo Abe’s assassination last summer.

Tetsuya Yamagami, who is accused of shooting Abe while he was making a campaign speech on 8 July, has told investigators that he had targeted Japan’s longest-serving prime minister over his connections to the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.

Public support for Kishida’s LDP plummeted as Japanese media uncovered widespread links between the church and party MPs and councillors, fuelling speculation that the conservative religious group, founded in South Korea in the 1950s, had influenced the LDP’s political agenda.

Kishida had begun to claw back support in the run-up to Sunday’s elections for nine governors, six mayors and dozens of prefectural and municipal assemblies after a surprise trip to Ukraine and a fence-mending summit in Tokyo with the South Korean president, Yoon Suk Yeol, last month.

The LDP took six of the governor races and will be particularly pleased to have won in Hokkaido – where the left-of-centre Constitutional Democratic party of Japan has traditionally been strong – as well as taking more than half of the 2,260 prefectural assembly seats being contested.

Voters in other areas, including Tokyo, go to the polls on 23 April, when there will also be five parliamentary byelections.

“Voters have recognised our achievements,” the LDP’s election strategy head, Hiroshi Moriyama, told reporters, according to the Nikkei Asia business paper. The win in Hokkaido was “significant”, he added.

Kishida, whose government plans to double defence spending by 2027, also appeared to have tapped into public concern over China’s military activity in the region and the potential for conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The local elections are also being seen as a litmus test for Kishida’s plans to address the cost-of-living crisis and the low birthrate.

The LDP fared less well in western Japan, where Hirofumi Yoshimura won a second term as governor of Osaka, while fellow Ishin candidate Hideyuki Yokoyama won the city’s election for mayor. An Ishin candidate also won the governor’s race in nearby Nara – the first time it has secured a governorship outside Osaka.

Yoshimura’s re-election is expected to strengthen his case for Osaka to host Japan’s first casino, plans for which have yet to receive government approval. His party’s strong showing at the weekend could also lead to more seats in parliament, where it is already the third-biggest party in the lower house.

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