Author: Corey Wallace, Free University of Berlin
After months of doubts about his long-term viability as prime minister, Shinzo Abe’s national approval ratings began trending upwards in August 2017. North Korean provocations and a parliamentary recess starved scandals surrounding Abe of media oxygen. Meanwhile the opposition Democratic Party (DP) became even more disjointed after electing Seiji Maehara as its new leader as the question of electoral cooperation with the Communist Party in single member district (SMDs) seats further exacerbated internal divisions.
Against a divided opposition that was without an election strategy and losing prominent centrist members to what seemed like a loose and still disorganised proto-party for Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s future ambitions, Abe calculated the public would likely put aside their distrust towards him. An election win now, before Abe’s support goes back on the decline, is also calculated to quiet the challengers within his own party and pave the way for a third term in office. This seemingly low risk, high payoff gamble was irresistible and by mid-September it was clear an October general election was imminent.
Then suddenly it appeared that Abe had been outsmarted. Just days before Abe dissolved the parliament on 28 September, Koike announced the formation of her new national political party, the Party of Hope. Koike put forward populist positions opposing nuclear energy restarts and raising the consumption tax while challenging Abenomics by emphasising its insufficient attention to the third arrow — structural and market reform — and overdependence on fiscal and financial policy instruments.
It is unlikely that Hope was whipped up overnight, given that Koike registered the party’s trademark back in February and the high production values and populist messaging of the video released soon after its launch. The migration of a number of Democratic Party politicians, such as Akihisa Nagashima and Goshi Hosono, in the months before the announcement of the new party further suggested that Koike’s play for the centrist wing of the Democrat Party and campaign cash was not purely spontaneous.
For a moment it seemed that the Abe administration was about to lose control over the narrative of who is best positioned to lead Japan’s national revival. The contest between the LDP and Hope in the lower house’s numerous SMDs even raised the spectre of Abe losing the LDP’s parliamentary majority.
Then, as suddenly as the Koike challenge emerged, its momentum stopped. True to her reputation as a micromanager, Koike appeared overzealous in policing the ideological commitments of potential recruits from the Democratic Party. This in turn drove those who resented such a ‘dictatorial’ management style to set up their own party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ). The CDPJ will now run 63 SMD candidates, potentially making it difficult for Hope to win big in Tokyo unless it can attract soft Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) voters or get more independents to the voting booth — the latter looking increasingly less likely as expectations for Hope fade.
Koike ruled out stepping down as Tokyo Governor and contesting the election herself while refusing to name a prime ministerial candidate from Hope as a parliamentary proxy. Having indicated that her party would not run candidates against Abe’s LDP rivals, such as Shigeru Ishiba and Seiko Noda, a subsequent announcement that her objective was to unseat Abe rather than the LDP appeared to turn the election into a personal vendetta.
Polling data suggests that Abe’s majority is safe and that the ruling coalition will achieve a stable majority, where parliamentary legislative proceedings will be facilitated by ruling party domination of parliamentary committees and chairs. Such an outcome raises two questions about the future of Japan’s electoral politics.
First, has the possibility of a genuinely contestable two-party system been dealt a further blow? In the short-term the answer appear to be yes. The post-2012 Democratic Party of Japan had already been reduced to less than the sum of its parts due to infighting, negative campaigning and underwhelming policy advocacy. Their division means that Hope and the CDPJ will be working at cross-purposes in the SMDs. But there is potentially reason for some optimism for a more competitive electoral system over the long term. Hope and the CDPJ can exceed the former DPJ’s post-2012 performance if they each pick up 10–15 per cent of the proportional representation vote. Greater ideological and policy clarity for both centre-left progressives and centre-right reformists from the split might provide a sharper platform to attract greater public support in the future. Tripolarity might then introduce some interesting dynamics that could challenge the LDP–Komeito electoral alliance.
Second, has the Koike challenge been effectively seen off? If Koike were to have left the Tokyo governorship after just over one year in the job she would have likely undermined her credibility and her long-term leadership prospects. She surely sensed that it was unlikely that Hope could seriously challenge the LDP this time around. This reality, combined with the need to build her local working relationship with Komeito in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, likely guided her announcement that she would not run Hope candidates against Komeito in the SMDs.
At the same time, it is unlikely that Koike’s longer-term influence has been entirely dismantled. As long as Hope maintains a robust and constructive post-election presence in an LDP–Komeito centred parliament, perhaps where Hope is the deciding vote on putting constitutional revision to a popular referendum, Koike may yet achieve her bottom-line objectives for the election.
Corey Wallace is the Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies, the Free University of Berlin.