The Liberal Democratic Party's smaller-than-expected advance in Sunday's Tokyo metropolitan assembly election amounts to a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and his stance on the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, some analysts say.
With voters keeping a close eye on how the COVID-19 situation develops in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics starting July 23, the result clouds the outlook for Suga as he prepares to lead the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito into a general election slated for the fall.
"The result shows the public does not support the central government led by Mr. Suga. The LDP put a lot of effort into the Tokyo election this time, but it ended up with a poor outcome," said Masahiro Iwasaki, a political science professor at Nihon University.
"This is a no to the LDP and a no to the Suga government," Iwasaki said.
The Olympic host city has seen a resurgence in infections since Suga's government lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency June 21. The public worries that the games could become a superspreader event, particularly after members of the Ugandan and Serbian Olympics delegations tested positive following arrival in Japan.
In Sunday's poll, the LDP replaced Tomin First no Kai, a regional party founded by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike whose name translates as "Tokyoites first party," as the leading force in the 127-seat assembly.
But the LDP and Komeito failed to win a combined majority in the capital's legislative body.
"This means the LDP is unlikely to have a smooth ride to victory in the House of Representatives election," Iwasaki said. The election must be held by Oct. 21 and Suga is expected to call it before his term as party leader runs out on Sept. 30.
Nevertheless, Sunday's election result is unlikely to spark calls for replacing Suga as leader because the party still increased its seats in the Tokyo assembly to 33 from 25.
While number of seats held by Tomin First fell to a smaller-than-expected 31 from 46, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition in parliament, and the Japanese Communist Party both increased their seats, in a worrying sign for the Suga government.
The LDP and Komeito sought to avoid making the Summer Games a focus of the Tokyo assembly election, but a Kyodo News exit poll showed more than half of the voters who cast ballots put an emphasis on candidates' stance toward the Olympics.
Tomin First called for hosting the global sports event without spectators. The JCP demanded that the Tokyo Games be canceled, and the CDPJ pushed for another postponement or cancellation.
Given the public's focus on the Olympics and the novel coronavirus situation, the sporting event will probably have more implications for the lower house election than the Tokyo assembly results themselves, according to Naoto Nonaka, a professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University.
"What will alter the course of the lower house election is what happens during the Olympics period, and whether people will think it was great that it was held or wonder what was the point of holding it under so much strain," Nonaka said.
Approval rates for Suga's Cabinet have moved in tandem with the government's coronavirus response.
The rate was the highest at over 60 percent shortly after the cabinet's launch in September last year, but it then plunged to hover around 40 percent amid public frustration over the government's coronavirus response, including the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
The last poll in June showed the Cabinet approval rate stood at 44.0 percent, up 2.9 percentage points from May as vaccination progressed.
In contrast, the public's support for Koike and her coronavirus response have been solid, and Tomin First's relatively small loss of seats in the Tokyo assembly reflected it, analysts said.
Voters also appear to have sympathized with Koike after she was hospitalized for fatigue on June 22 amid the city's fight against COVID-19.
There was speculation before the election about how committed Koike was to leading Tomin First to victory, with some analysts suggesting she was tempted to get closer to the LDP, to which she used to belong, and Komeito, to prepare for a possible return to national politics.
While Koike and an LDP executive met before the Tokyo election was called and she agreed not to side with Tomin First but extend equal support to the LDP and Komeito, Koike acted against the agreement in the final stage of the campaign and asked voters for support to Tomin First candidates.
The decision may have affected the election outcome in Tomin First's favor, according to senior ruling coalition lawmakers.
Some suspect there is still room for Tomin First to advance into national politics.
Following the 2017 Tokyo assembly election in which the party won a landslide victory, Koike founded the Party of Hope, a national political party. But she failed to make a breakthrough with it at the time.
"Eyes are on whether there will be a rerun of the same situation," said Nihon University's Iwasaki. "It may be hard to do so (in the general election) this round, but still, they are already a presence that cannot be ignored."