TOKYO - A candidate from Japan's ruling party lost a race for a governorship on Sunday, domestic media reported, apparently in a reaction at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to end a policy that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945.
The election in the western prefecture of Shiga was the first high-profile poll since Abe's cabinet adopted a resolution ending the ban on exercising "collective self-defence", or aiding a friendly country under attack - the most dramatic change in Japanese security policy in decades.
Abe has argued the change is needed to cope with a tough security environment, but the move has stirred angst among many voters wary of entanglement in foreign wars and worried that Japan's post-war pacifist constitution is being gutted.
Ruling Liberal Democratic Party-backed Takashi Koyari was defeated by former opposition Democratic party lawmaker Taizo Mikazuki, the Kyodo news agency and the Nikkei business daily reported, based on projections from a partial vote count.
The loss sends a warning signal to Abe's administration, whose voter support has dropped below 50 per cent in public opinion surveys after the July 1 shift in security policy. Three more gubernatorial races are set for November, to be followed by a slew of local polls nationwide next April. No general election is mandated until 2016.
"This confirms that this was not a popular idea," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"The LDP will continue to have to worry about more defeats to follow." Voters may also have been swayed by concern over the safety of nuclear power more than three years after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the world's worst since Chernobyl.
Shiga is adjacent to Fukui prefecture, home to a number of nuclear plants. Abe's government is keen to restart operations at some of the nation's 48 reactors, all of which are now offline after the Fukushima crisis, to reduce the cost of electricity and imported fuel.
Candidate Mikazuki had called for Shiga to have a greater say in whether reactors in nearby Fukui are restarted.
Abe's government, with one eye on the coming local elections, has begun stressing the need to ensure that his"Abenomics" recipe for reviving the economy through easy monetary policy, spending, and structural reform, helps not only big cities and corporations but outlying regions as well.