TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's scandal-laden ruling party scrambled Monday to control damage from an embarrassing defeat in Tokyo municipal elections, but experts said the stunning result could mean the beginning of the end to Abe's long reign.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party suffered a thumping loss in the assembly elections Sunday, taking a beating for recent scandals and a high-handed approach in achieving policies, while maverick Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's new party surged to victory on her reformist image.
Koike's party and its allies secured a comfortable majority, winning a total of 79 of the assembly's 127 seats. But the city branch of Abe's LDP won just 23 seats, its worst-ever showing in the assembly, and down from its pre-election share of 57 seats.
Experts said voters had sent a message to Abe and his party for their perceived arrogance.
"The results were a punishment by voters who were frustrated by the recent development in the LDP," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Whether Abe can stay on and achieve his long-cherished revision to Japan's war-renouncing constitution hinges on his "damage control," Watanabe said.
Sunday's vote was closely monitored because previous Tokyo assembly elections have set the tone for subsequent national polls. The 2009 assembly election, in which the LDP won just 38 seats, was followed later that year by the party's defeat in a national election that forced it from power.
Still, Abe's tenure as prime minister is not under immediate threat. The LDP still has a dominant place nationally in the absence of center-left alternatives, and Abe has few political rivals within his party.
But he'll be forced to stop railroading policies and stonewalling demands to clarify scandals involving him and his aides, and his plan to be re-elected for a third term next year is now uncertain.
In a major ongoing scandal, Abe is alleged to have helped a friend gain government approval for his new veterinary school.
Abe could reshuffle his Cabinet to remove unpopular faces such as Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who recently was grilled over her remark at an election rally in which she asked for support from her ministry and the Self-Defense Force, allegedly violating laws stipulating neutrality of civil servants and the military.
Jeff Kingston, Asian studies and history professor at Temple University, Japan Campus, said Abe might need more than a Cabinet reshuffle to bounce back. "I think it will be hard for him to rebound and his popularity will continue to decline," he said. "Up until now, he's been a Teflon premier — all the scandals just sort of wash off and everybody forgets. But this was a bloody blow."
Abe had long enjoyed stable approval ratings since returning to power in 2012 and was hoping to be re-elected in September 2018 for a third term so he could continue to work on the constitution revision, a key agenda item that has unified his right-wing supporters.
Abe said Sunday's election defeat was a wake-up call for his party.
"We must take it seriously and do our utmost by reminding ourselves of our aspirations when we returned to power (in 2012)," he said Monday.
Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said members of Abe's party may start gauging whether having Abe as prime minister is a benefit or a liability.
"Abe cannot expect lasting, comfortable support within the party ... especially after such an election loss," Nakano said. "Seems to me it's the beginning of the end of Abe's rule."
Associated Press writer Sherry Zheng contributed to this report.