Photo/Illutration The Yokohama city government’s new building, which has 32 stories above ground and houses commercial facilities on the lower floors. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is throwing all his chips on the table in backing an anti-casino candidate in the Yokohama mayoral election, a race that has a record field of eight candidates.

Suga's support of close ally Hachiro Okonogi smacks of a desperate about-face, since he has long touted Yokohama as a location for an “integrated resort” (IR) featuring a casino as the main draw.

The outcome of the race could determine what the cards hold for Suga's political fortunes in the coming months, if he fails to rally support in his own backyard. 

Official campaigning for Yokohama mayor kicked off on Aug. 8 with all the candidates running as independents. The vote will be held on Aug. 22.

The central issues in the election are whether the city government should continue seeking to host an integrated resort and how to rebuild the local economy and the city’s finances after they were ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

The city has been preparing to host an IR facility under Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, who is seeking re-election. Apart from Hayashi, only one other candidate supports continuing with the project. The rest are opposed, reflecting a view pervasive among Yokohama residents.

City assembly members of Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party had endorsed the casino project up until now.

But they decided to cast their ballots on their own after the LDP’s Yokohama chapter could not unite in offering party-wide support for it before the race.

The outcome of the mayoral election is expected to impact Suga’s prospects as LDP leader as his approval rating continues falling due to the government’s heavily criticized response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The race is viewed as a precursor to the Lower House election, which must be held by autumn.

The LDP has suffered a series of setbacks in national polls and major local elections to date under Suga as party head.

A defeat in the mayoral election in Yokohama, part of which is included in Suga’s constituency, could fuel calls to replace him as party president.

The worst-case scenario for Suga is seeing Takeharu Yamanaka, a candidate backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties, capture the mayor’s office. Yamanaka was a professor of public health at Yokohama City University.

Suga made an extremely unusual move on Aug. 3, when he asked LDP bigwigs to support Okonogi at a meeting that day.

Okonogi, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, is running for mayor after he resigned from his Cabinet post to seek to block the planned IR project.

Suga has consistently pushed for Yokohama’s bid to host a casino since he was chief Cabinet secretary.

In the end, however, Suga chose to back Okonogi as nothing mattered more than defeating a candidate backed by opposition parties.

“Suga would completely lose face if he suffered another loss,” an aide to the prime minister said of his about-face on the gambling project.

Among the other candidates are Yasuo Tanaka, former Nagano governor, and Shigefumi Matsuzawa, former Kanagawa governor.

(This story was compiled from reports by Hiroyuki Takei, Natsuki Okamura and Hideki Kitami.)