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Koike’s challenge to Japan’s political status quo

Author: Corey Wallace, Free University of Berlin

Japan’s self-styled governance reformers have attempted to knit themselves into Japan’s political fabric in different ways over the last 15 years. But up to now, the various waves of reformers have failed to translate the popularity of their agenda into national political influence.

‘Koizumi’s children’, named after former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, were a group of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians who came to prominence in the 2005 elections, hand-picked as candidates by Koizumi for their support of his reform agenda. The centre-left opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) then became the vehicle in 2009 for ‘Ozawa’s children’ to take the stage. Former mayor Toru Hashimoto used a takeover of local government in Osaka to build support for a new national party that also attracted former parliamentarians from both the Koizumi and Ozawa cohorts.

Yuriko Koike’s historic ascent to the Tokyo governorship is the latest such challenge to the political status quo.

Koike quickly vowed to address the escalating costs of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which had quadrupled from original estimates to US$25 billion. Koike also suspended the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market due to environmental concerns that had been ignored by previous administrators. And she is promoting a vision to turn Tokyo into a global financial centre by taking advantage of selective deregulation through Japan’s special economic zone program and London’s Brexit troubles.

Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party should wrest control of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly from the LDP in the elections on 2 July 2017. The recent victory of a Koike-endorsed mayoral candidate in the Chiyoda district, who attracted over three times the vote of the LDP-backed candidate, bodes well. So does Koike’s sky-high personal popularity, which continues at 70 per cent according to Asahi Shimbun polling.

Tomin First no Kai has ridden this momentum to draw level with the LDP based on voting intentions, and will look to take advantage of greater turnout compared to 2013’s record low to blow past the LDP — a head-on challenge to the party that Koike only left at the end of May.

Koike has already drawn away the Tokyo LDP’s coalition partner. An alliance with Komeito and its almost guaranteed 20-plus seats, plus support from other non-LDP parties, means Tomin First no Kai only needs to win around 35 to 40 out of 127 seats in mostly multiple member districts to take control of the assembly. The Asahi Shimbun poll found that 53 per cent of respondents wanted to see the Tomin First no Kai–Komeito alliance achieve this majority.

Koike’s campaign is not pulling punches. The party website unabashedly represents Tokyo ‘old guard’ assemblypersons as making little effort to address local issues and more interested in ‘banquets and heckling’ during their four-year terms.

Given the opposition DPJ’s failure to successfully reinvent itself, a political force headed up by Koike, who likely still harbours prime ministerial aspirations, may also represent the only viable threat to the LDP’s national majority.

In the 2014 lower house election, the LDP managed to win 76 per cent of single member districts (SMDs) nationwide. Osaka, where former mayor Hashimoto is influential, was an exception as the LDP only managed to capture 9 out of the 19 available SMD seats, and less than 29 per cent of the proportional representation seats in the wider Kansai region.

The LDP’s current bounty of 22 out of Tokyo’s 25 SMDs would be similarly vulnerable to a localised Koike challenge, either at the ballot box or through defections like the recent resignation of lower house representative Masaru Wakasa. Ceding Osaka and Tokyo to two different reformist groups will make it difficult for the LDP to hold on to a lower house majority nationally without becoming even more dependent on Komeito’s support, particularly should Prime Minister Abe or a future replacement stumble.

As Koike is a much less combustible personality than former populist standard-bearer Hashimoto, and pragmatic almost to a fault, she would probably do better if she did decide to ‘go national’. The possibility of dragging Komeito away from the LDP nationally is currently unlikely. But there are other options for electoral cooperation outside of Tokyo, including the Hashimoto-linked Nippon Ishin no Kai.

The DPJ is also interested in Koike. Internal doubts in the DPJ are rising over the party’s ‘united front’ strategy involving the Japan Communist Party (JCP), where the parties coordinate to assign only one candidate to the SMDs to avoid splitting the anti-LDP vote. Cooperation with Koike rather than the JCP in SMDs would be one way to drag the DPJ back to focusing on Japan’s currently deactivated but potentially vote-rich political centre.

Senior DPJ member Nagashima Akihisa’s recent departure, where he expressed displeasure with the JCP link and signalled the possibility of linking up with Koike’s party, suggests that the Koike threat to both the LDP and DPJ is only likely to grow. This is unless Abe calls an election soon — an option he seems to have forgone by vowing to achieve constitutional change by 2020.

Corey Wallace is the Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies, the Free University of Berlin.

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