Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Yuriko Koike at a debate in Tokyo, October 2017.
Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

On September 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the lower house of the Japanese Diet and called a snap election for October 22. The move was a calculated gamble to seize on the modest recovery in Abe’s approval ratings that has accompanied increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Abe’s hope is that the Japanese electorate will return his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to office without costing him the two-thirds supermajority that he currently holds with a coalition partner, the Komeito Party—a possibility that seemed remote earlier this summer, when the Abe government’s approval ratings sank to only 32.5 percent, their lowest point ever.

Abe’s government has suffered in the polls in recent months due to a string of influence-peddling scandals as well as a number of political gaffes by key aides, including the former defense minister and Abe protégé Tomomi Inada. Since the low point in July, however, Abe has recovered some popularity through a significant reshuffle of his cabinet while benefitting from a spike in tensions with North Korea, which over the past two months launched two ballistic missile tests over Japanese territory and detonated a hydrogen bomb. The prime minister’s approval ratings now sit around 41 percent. 

But although Abe’s ruling LDP remains the favorite to win the election later this month, Japanese politics are changing. First was the halfhearted attempt by the long-struggling Democratic Party (DP)—the main opposition to the LDP—to rebrand itself by shaking up its leadership. In early September, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was elected to take over as DP leader following the resignation of the previous leader in July. Maehara, a conservative-leaning figure, had vowed to turn the corner for the struggling party, whose popularity had plummeted despite significant public disenchantment with the Abe government. Maehara divided opinion within the DP by critiquing the party’s reluctant electoral cooperation with Japan’s Communist Party. In early August, polls indicated that only seven percent of Japanese voters supported the DP, as opposed to 39 percent for the LDP.

Although Abe’s ruling LDP remains the favorite to win the election later this month, Japanese politics are changing.

Maehara’s rebranding, however, quickly took a drastic turn. On the same day that Abe dissolved the Diet, Maehara effectively disbanded the DP and agreed to join forces with Kibo no To (Party of Hope), the newly minted nationalist party of Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike. According to Koike, the Party of Hope looks to occupy the political center and provide an alternative to the LDP’s dated conservatism. Maehara believed that folding the DP and aligning it (at least for this election) with Koike might present the best chance to end Abe’s five-year reign. This move was contested by some in the DP, who worried that any union with Koike’s party would spell an end to their own party’s traditionally liberal policies, especially those opposing further national security reforms and the revision of Japan’s constitution. (The Party of Hope remains mostly in lockstep with the LDP on security and foreign affairs.) These dissenters split and formed their own party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), led by the deputy head of the DP, Yukio Edano. 

Koike’s re-emergence on the national scene, where she was previously a long-standing LDP Diet member and two-time cabinet official, is not altogether surprising: there had been rumors for months in Tokyo that she wished to challenge Abe. And the authoritative victory of her municipal party, Tokyoites First, over the LDP (and the DP) in the Tokyo metropolitan elections this July boosted her political prospects.

At first, Koike appeared to have caught Abe and his allies flat-footed. Abe’s plan to call a snap election was the worst-kept secret in Tokyo this fall. Koike seized the opportunity by launching her new party—complete with a slick advertising campaign portraying her as a reformer against Japan’s male-dominated political scene —just before Abe’s official call for the new election, taking the wind from Abe’s sails and capturing the nation’s attention at just the right moment. Maehara’s decision to effectively disband the DP, allowing many of its candidates to run for Koike’s party, only compounded the LDP’s surprise.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike at a campaign rally in Tokyo, October 2017.
Issei Kato / Reuters

If Koike’s party is somehow able to win, or even damage Abe enough to force his resignation as Prime Minister, it would be a political coup for her and her new ally Maehara. The early signs had been positive: a September 30 poll from Kyodo News indicated that although 24 percent of voters supported the LDP, nearly 15 percent initially supported the Party of Hope and 43 percent were undecided. Koike had also seen a surge of interest in her personally, with 33 percent of Japanese saying she is their top choice for prime minister, compared to 46 percent favoring Abe.

Despite Koike’s jumping out of the gates with momentum, however, the outlook for her and her party has become increasingly less optimistic. After months of waffling about her own role within the party, Koike finally confirmed on October 6 that she would remain as mayor of Tokyo rather than run for prime minister. She continues to be cryptic about her political future and has yet not indicated who would lead the Party of Hope if it were to win. The party has plummeted in the polls, with the most recent Yomiuri poll showing a decline in support from 19 percent to 13 percent. Abe’s LDP, meanwhile, polls at a slightly reduced share of 32 percent, while the CDP sits at seven percent. It now looks unlikely that Koike will become Japan’s first-ever female prime minister—which would break Japan’s “steel ceiling,” as she has called it.

Even without these recent setbacks, it was always unclear whether Koike would be able to stitch together enough diverse political blocs to really challenge the LDP. In addition to her alliance with Maehara and the former DP, Koike has also been striking deals with other, smaller opposition parties, including the conservative Nippon Ishin no Kai, which has agreed to cooperate by not running candidates in the competitive areas of Kanto and Kansai.

It remains to be seen, moreover, whether Koike’s diverse patchwork of alliances can hold. The creation of the left-leaning CDP is one example of her coalition’s instability. It is possible that the Party of Hope will continue to lose its shine because it bundles together too many contradictory viewpoints. For example, it will be difficult for Koike to reconcile the conservative Party of Hope, which is strikingly similar to the LDP in many ways, with the remnants of the DP. Japan’s voters may suffer from Abe fatigue, but they are not sure of Koike’s policy vision. Many may see her political horse-trading as an attempt to win victory at any cost rather than as a politically coherent alternative to the LDP.

By absorbing large parts of the DP, Koike’s party has neutered Japan’s moderate left and perhaps provided an opportunity for the resurgent Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which continues to garner about five percent of the popular vote and holds 21 seats in the lower house of the Diet, making it the second-largest opposition party in the legislature. Even with the emergence of the CDP, there may be a need for a marriage of convenience between the DP liberal holdover and the JCP. Indeed, the JCP and the CDP have already agreed to cooperate with each other in single member district (SMD) ridings to avoid splitting the center-left vote. And a number of independent DP members who have neither joined the CDP nor the Party of Hope may align with the LDP or the JCP.

Koike has attempted to differentiate herself from Abe by opposing nuclear energy, which he supports, and by campaigning to postpone a controversial increase in Japan’s consumption tax from eight percent to ten percent, which Abe would like to implement next year.  But Koike is no liberal, and her views on many issues—including Japan’s role in World War II, security posture, and the constitution—are at least as conservative as those of Abe and his allies. Thus one of the larger implications of the Party of Hope’s alignment with the DP is that center-left views on issues such as constitution revision and Japan’s security posture will be further marginalized [OK?].

There is less daylight between Koike and Abe on the issue of revising Japan’s constitution to loosen some of the restrictions on its armed forces—a long-stated goal of the Abe administration. Both support a change in principle, but it is unclear how much of a priority it would be for Koike if her party were to seize control. Koike also has been vague about her ideas for constitutional reform, mentioning only that she prefers a broader revision beyond simply modifying the controversial clause in Article 9 that limits the role of Japan’s military.

Abe, meanwhile, faces strong headwinds, even if he is able to retain the premiership. If Koike’s party is able to peel off enough seats from the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition, it may imperil Abe’s efforts to secure the two-thirds majority he needs to revise the constitution. With a poor showing—such as losing the LDP’s simple majority in the lower house—Abe will likely be ousted by critics within his own party. But while the prime minister’s electoral gamble remains risky, it now appears that will he weather the storm created by Koike’s entrance into the election. Despite some Abe fatigue, Japan’s voters remain deeply skeptical of the patchwork and untested opposition parties and are likely to deliver the Abe administration a minor setback rather than a fatal blow.

  • J. BERKSHIRE MILLER is a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. He is also a senior fellow with the Tokyo-based Asian Forum Japan.
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