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Koike victory puts Abe on the back foot

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In Brief

Just as constitutional revision was on the horizon, local politics in Tokyo has put Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on the back foot. Two LDP-backed Tokyo governors, Naoki Inose and Yoichi Masuzoe, were both forced to leave office early after being caught out in money scandals. In the Tokyo gubernatorial election a year ago, Yuriko Koike put her hat into the ring to replace the disgraced Masuzoe, and won easily, becoming Tokyo's first female governor.


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This month Koike’s Tomin First No Kai (Tokyoites First) party won the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. Her two victories over the past 12 months have transformed the Japanese political scene.

Koike — an MP since 1992, member of the LDP since 2002 and a former defence and environment minister — did not consult with the LDP Tokyo chapter party bigwigs before entering the race for governor last year. In the hierarchical and male dominated world of Japanese politics, this move was not taken lightly. The Tokyo LDP branch responded by backing their own candidate, Hiroya Masuda, a former Governor of Iwate prefecture and Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications (an unelected appointee), forcing Koike to run as an independent. Prime Minister Abe, for his part, refrained from campaigning for either candidate.

Koike won by positioning herself as a reformer who could overcome political gridlock to get things done. Upon becoming governor, Koike went on the offensive, reining in the escalating costs of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which had quadrupled from original estimates to US$25 billion, and delaying the relocation of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market in response to  environmental concerns. Still, the Tokyo LDP’s ‘old guard’ did not want to play ball, leading to a political tug of war between the governor and the assembly.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election earlier this month was thus set up as a referendum on Koike’s policies. Though overshadowed by the Olympic budget and Tsukiji, Koike’s campaign championed other issues to improve the quality of living in Tokyo, such as the acute shortage of nurseries which discourages mothers from working, banning smoking in public places before the 2020 Olympics, improving earthquake resistance and reducing excessive working hours. Recently, she started a campaign to address overcrowding on trains during rush hour by encouraging companies to introduce more flexible work hours and by incentivising early morning commutes.

But before Koike could run against the LDP ‘old guard’ in Tokyo, she had to groom her own candidates. In October she started her own political school to generate the necessary pool of candidates and engineered a number of defections from other parties. A month before the election Koike registered her new Tomin First party and resigned from the LDP. Then, in another slap in the face for the old guard of her former party, Koike convinced the Buddhist political party Komeito to abandon its coalition with the Tokyo LDP and enter into a formal alliance with Tomin First.

Tomin First won an historic victory and established itself as the biggest party in the assembly with 49 of the 127 seats. Its coalition with Komeito, which held on to its 23 seats, gave it a majority. The LDP was bumped down from 57 to 23 seats — its worst result ever and only the third time the LDP failed to win the most seats in Tokyo (the others being 1965 and 2009).

As Purnendra Jain notes this week, ‘as Japan’s financial and political capital, [Tokyo’s] impact on national politics is significant. Political changes in Tokyo very often serve as a barometer of national politics’.

Does Koike’s win give Prime Minister Abe and his LDP cause for concern at the national level?

As Amy Catalinac explains in our lead article this week, while the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) has been in a perpetual state of weakness after its stint in government between 2009 and 2012, the electorate craves a credible alternative government. The Tokyo election ‘affirmed an appetite among voters for a rival to the LDP … Given that the LDP has won pluralities in 19 of the last 20 lower house elections, one could be forgiven for thinking, as an LDP Diet member asserted in a recent interview, that the “Japanese people just like the idea of one dominant party”. On the contrary, this election suggests that LDP dominance rests upon the absence of a credible alternative. When one appears, large numbers of voters will consider voting for it’.

Talk of Koike gunning for Abe’s job may be premature. She would look hypocritical if she failed to carry out her four-year term as governor given her rhetoric of putting the people of Tokyo first. For Koike to become Prime Minister she would need to maintain her popularity, oversee a successful 2020 Olympics, and then either rejoin the LDP or forge political alliances with other opposition parties.

The rise of Koike is better seen as a sign of the collapse in Abe’s support. The LDP’s rout in the Tokyo election comes on the back of a number of scandals afflicting Abe. First there was the Moritomo Gakuen scandal which saw the ultranationalist educational institution with ties to Abe and his wife given a cut price land deal and approval for the construction of an elementary school. Then there was the Kake Gakuen scandal in which a veterinary clinic run by a family friend of Abe was selected for construction in a national special strategic zone in Ehime prefecture. The loss in Tokyo is major embarrassment number three.

These trip ups are reflected in recent opinion polling. Japanese national broadcaster NHK’s latest poll shows Abe’s support has fallen for the third month in succession down to 35 per cent. This is the lowest since he began his second stint as Prime Minister in December 2012. It is not far from his record low of 29 per cent the month before he resigned during his first stint in August 2007 and last week’s Jiji news agency poll measures his support not much above that, at 29.9 per cent.

Abe previously looked like Teflon man. In the July 2016 upper house election the LDP, along with coalition partner Komeito and other pro-constitutional revision micro parties, gained a two-thirds majority. Abe’s long cherished goal of constitutional revision, specifically amendment of the Article 9 peace clause, appeared to be within grasp. On 3 May, Japan’s Constitution Anniversary Day national holiday, Abe confidently declared that his government would seek a constitutional referendum before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There was even talk of its happening this year.

Now the question is whether Abe will be able to win re-election for a third term as party president in September 2018, and thus continue as Prime Minister, or whether his rivals will move against him.

Given the weakness of the opposition DP, Abe may yet survive. But constitutional reform now appears off the table, at least until after the December 2018 lower house election. Abe appears to have lost his aura of invincibility. A major cabinet reshuffle is in the offing in the next few weeks. If Abe is to turn the ship around he will need to double down on Abenomics structural reforms to rejuvenate the economy and avoid bleeding more political capital on scandals and his unpopular quest for constitutional revision.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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