Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko is currently dominating political headlines in Japan. Despite her affiliations with the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, Koike stood as an independent against the LDP candidate in the gubernatorial elections last year. She has started her own political group Tomin Fāsuto no Kai (Tokyo Citizens First) and an academy that aims to turn her acolytes into electoral candidates. Many associated with Koike and the LDP now suspect she is plotting a return to national politics and may even have her eye on the biggest job of all.
LDP Under Threat in Tokyo
In late February, a list of predictions circulated among members of the press, forecasting the outcome of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections, due to be held later this year. It is widely thought to have been based on a survey conducted on behalf of Governor Koike Yuriko. The paper predicted a dramatic upheaval in Tokyo politics, in the form of a landslide victory for Koike’s Tomin Fāsuto no Kai (Tokyo Citizens First) group. The predictions were as follows: Citizens First 59 seats, Kōmeitō 23, Liberal Democratic Party 23, Democratic Party 2, Japanese Communist Party 15, Nippon Ishin no Kai 0.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly is made up of 127 seats; 64 seats therefore constitutes a majority. As of February 20, 2017, the balance of power in the assembly was as follows. The LDP holds the most seats, with 57, followed by Kōmeitō with 22, the DP and its affiliates with 18, the JCP with 17, and Koike’s Citizens First group with just 5. If the forecasts are correct, Koike’s party will surge from its present small numbers to take nearly a majority of seats, while the previously dominant LDP tumbles to less than half the number of seats it currently holds. Another set of predictions, believed to have been based on a Kōmeitō survey, showed a similar trajectory in the balance of power in the assembly.
People close to Koike say that Citizens First, Kōmeitō, and the DP have all carried out recent surveys that suggest a similar outcome. All agree that the LDP is likely to see its number of seats fall dramatically. If Koike is able to maintain her current levels of support until the elections roll around, it seems almost certain that her group will become the biggest single faction in the assembly.
Sources say that the LDP’s Tokyo chapter has also carried out similar surveys on selected voting districts. These surveys apparently suggest that although the LDP is indeed trailing to Citizens First in single-member districts, the lead is not so clear-cut in districts that elect two or more representatives, where Koike’s group will share seats with the LDP.
But Koike’s camp dismisses this analysis as too optimistic. “Even in districts that will elect three representatives, for example, our surveys show that two outcomes are the most likely. Depending on district, the finishing order looks likely to be either Citizens First, Kōmeitō, JCP, or Citizens First, JCP, Kōmeitō. The LDP is not even in the top three. And in some two-member districts we’re confident we would take all the seats on offer if we put up two candidates.”
The same source says: “If the opposition parties can coordinate their campaigns, it’s possible the LDP may struggle to win even 20 seats.” Dropping to just 19 seats or fewer would be a catastrophic outcome for the LDP. A collapse on this scale would be unprecedented under the leadership of Abe Shinzō—in the Abe era, the party has enjoyed a period of unrivaled dominance. But Koike successfully defeated a coalition led by LDP and Kōmeitō candidates at last year’s gubernatorial election. More recently, Koike’s favored contender crushed the LDP candidate in the February election for mayor of the Chiyoda municipality, one of Tokyo’s central districts. Sources close to the governor say that if current trends continue, the LDP stands to see its powerful regional organization in the capital blown away.
Alliance with Kōmeitō
Many commentators have drawn parallels between the support Koike has been giving to anti-LDP candidates and Osaka Ishin no Kai, a regional political party previously led by former Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru. But my source says there are fundamental differences between the two local-government mavericks: “Ishin no Kai was trying to get rid of the existing parties. But we have friendly relations with the existing parties and are even working together with them.”
It is certainly true that Koike has not shown the same fervent antagonism to all the existing parties in the assembly. In fact, it is only the LDP that she has consistently opposed. A clear pattern is emerging in the assembly, in which Koike and one of the other parties join forces to go up against the LDP. The clearest example of this so far is her relationship with Kōmeitō.
Kōmeitō parted company with the LDP in December last year to join forces with the Koike faction in the Tokyo assembly. On March 10, the party announced that it would collaborate with Citizens First on a district level in the elections. The two parties will also sign a policy agreement and exchange policy. This creates an anomalous situation in which the party is in coalition with the LDP in the National Diet but fighting against it in the Tokyo assembly. But party officials seem to have decided that the party has no choice if it wants to survive in the Tokyo regional assembly.
Koike’s faction believes a number of multiple-member districts could hold the key to the election, and has decided that drawing Kōmeitō and its supporters away from the LDP into an alliance of convenience with Citizens First is a winning strategy. Koike is also eager to cooperate as much as possible with candidates from other parties—all except the LDP—and behind-the-scenes negotiations are apparently already underway. “It’s possible that a Koike-led governing party could hold more than 100 seats out of 127 after the election,” says one person close to Koike. “At least, it is likely that non-LDP parties will control 100 seats or more.”
LDP Old Guard Out for Revenge
Koike apparently did not start out with plans for open warfare with the LDP. When she met Abe at the prime minister’s official residence on January 10, she apparently promised that her faction would lend its support to LDP candidates at the House of Representatives election. At least at this point, the LDP too seems to have believed that although its Tokyo chapter would oppose Koike in the assembly, the party’s national headquarters was not interested in starting a fight with the Tokyo governor.
But many in the government have still not forgiven Ms. Koike for what they see as her betrayal of the prime minister in the 2012 LDP leadership election. She initially expressed her support for Abe, only to switch over to his challenger Ishiba Shigeru when rumors started that he was going to join forces with Ishihara Nobuteru to form a powerful new faction. The basic mood in the prime minister’s circles is one of loathing for Koike. Abe’s right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, apparently longs to crush Koike’s movement and wipe her from the political map once and for all. Koike and her supporters must surely be aware of the feeling against them among the top echelons of the LDP. “We had no intention of starting a war with the Cabinet Office or the LDP headquarters. But they keep trying to stymie us in everything we do. Well, two can play at that game,” says a source close to Koike.
Looking Ahead to Diet Elections
If Citizens First is serious about getting involved in national politics, the key question becomes: When will the prime minister dissolve the lower house? The current parliament runs until December 2018. Many within the LDP now believe that the prime minister will announce an election in autumn next year, assuming he successfully wins a third term as LDP party president at the general assembly in September next year. If Abe’s status as the undisputed power in Japanese politics survives intact, the thinking goes, and his government continues to enjoy wide public support, this would be the ideal opportunity for him to address the issues dearest to him, among them his cherished desire to change the Constitution, according to a senior Kōmeitō figure.
If events do unfold this way, a schedule along these lines would give Koike and her supporters at least a certain amount of time to prepare candidates to put forward at the next House of Representatives election. Some commentators suggest that election finances may be another potential stumbling block that would make it difficult for Citizens First to put up candidates across the country at a national election. But one source close to Koike says, “That’s not a problem so long as we put up candidates with strong financial backing.” The same is true of candidate numbers: Around 4,000 people have already enrolled in Kibō no juku (School of Hope), Koike’s political academy, and many around her are confident that they can recruit the necessary numbers at short order, if necessary.
The idea is that Citizens First will launch a study group first with a view to expanding its remit to national politics, and will choose participants from its political training academy. Students who have successfully completed courses on political policy and electoral tactics will be given priority.
Both the government and opposition parties expect Koike to return to national politics at some stage—the only question is when.
One source suggests that whatever happens, it almost certainly won’t be at the next House of Representatives election. “She still doesn’t have any results to show as governor of Tokyo,” he says. And it is certainly true that the governor currently finds herself embroiled in a number of situations that seem unlikely to resolve themselves anytime soon, not least the controversy surrounding the relocation of the Tokyo fish market from Tsukiji to a problematic new site at Toyosu. The real work in addressing this problem remains to be done—she would surely come in for harsh criticism if she turned her back on her responsibilities to return to national politics now, leaving someone else to clear up the mess. She also has a responsibility to ensure smooth preparations for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.
Given this, the likeliest possibility seems to be that Koike will aim to return to national politics at the election after next—in 2022. If the prime minister wins a third term as party president, that term would come to an end in 2021, when Koike is 69. That would present another opportunity. Many in the LDP are confident that there is no way her popularity will survive that long. Despite this, some are convinced that Koike has her eyes set on the power vacuum that will presumably arise in the party when Abe retires or becomes vulnerable to being unseated.
One reason why Koike is attracting such attention is the lack of plausible candidates to replace Abe, given the uncontested authority the prime minister currently enjoys. Some within the LDP see Ishiba Shigeru, as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs Kishida Fumio, Defense Minister Inada Tomomi, and Noda Seiko, a former minister of posts and telecommunications, as possibilities. But the truth is that none of these figures really captures the public imagination. Many people close to government see Koike, with her strong sense of individuality, charisma, and personality, as someone who may have what it takes to become prime minister herself one day.
What will Koike’s next move be? At the moment, everything depends on the results of the Tokyo assembly election. It seems clear that Koike is trying to keep a free hand, preparing for all possibilities as she launches a study group to look into the possibilities of a move into national politics.
The LDP Strikes Back?
Within the LDP itself, the mood is a mixture of confidence and despair.
In early March, the party’s Tokyo chapter requested party headquarters for support and began its preparations for the election in earnest. The party has apparently conveyed its intention to fight with all the powers at its disposal to maintain its current number of seats.
Within the Tokyo assembly itself, however, opposition to Koike continues, stirred up by opposition to her idea of a grand reform to the way Tokyo is run. The idea seems to be to cling fast, avoid friction with Koike and wait for things to die down, but this seems to be having little effect at present.
Some people within the party are calling for the Tokyo assembly election and the House of Representatives election to be held on the same day, as a way of minimizing Koike’s influence. Sources in the party’s leadership in the assembly say quietly that this is “obviously one possibility we will look at.” The idea is that Koike would have no time to prepare for a House of Representatives election in July, and would be forced to abandon her aspirations for a return to national politics at this stage. The tactics would also be a way of firing a shot across the bows of Kōmeitō and warning it away from any closer dalliances with the Koike movement. But Kōmeitō remains staunchly opposed to the idea of holding both elections on the same day, not least because the Tokyo assembly elections are every bit as important for the smaller party as the elections for the lower house. It seems inevitable that any move to hold the elections on the same day would meet with considerable protest from within Kōmeitō.
At a press conference on March 10, LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro was asked to comment on Koike’s attempts to expand her own power base and influence despite being still officially registered as a member of the LDP. He admitted that some form of disciplinary measures might be a possibility, saying: “The party may be forced to take a firm stand if she continues to be so blatant about it.”
Others believe that it is important put a stop to the influence that the Tokyo election is having on national politics. “The main LDP headquarters should get out of the Tokyo assembly election as quickly as possible. As it is, the responsibility for a major defeat would lie not only with the party’s Tokyo chapter but with the national headquarters as well. A major defeat could easily damage the prime minister’s authority,” one member of the House of Representatives put it recently in an appeal to senior figures in the party’s Tokyo chapter. Apparently, however, this suggestion was not enthusiastically received.
(Originally published in Japanese on March 28, 2017. Banner photo: Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko on her way to a session at the Metropolitan Assembly in Shinjuku on February 28, 2017. © Jiji.)
Born in Kyoto in 1969. Writer and editor at Jiji Press, where he specializes in the ins and outs of Japanese politics.