On September 25, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike upstaged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by announcing that she would lead her newly created Party of Hope in the snap election that Abe announced later that same day. For a moment, it seemed that Abe had made a colossal error in calling an early vote: instead of competing against a divided and disintegrating Democratic Party (DP), his Liberal Democratic Party would face an up-and-coming conservative group led by Koike, who had trounced the LDP’s candidates in Tokyo’s municipal elections in July.

As it turned out, the Party of Hope fizzled. After an initial surge in opinion polls following the party’s launch, its support plummeted, even in Tokyo. When the general election votes were tallied on October 22, Koike’s party came nowhere close to threatening the LDP’s grip on power. After fielding 235 candidates, the Party of Hope won only 49 seats. It finished in third place, behind another new opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which won 55 seats despite running only 78 candidates. The Party of Hope performed especially poorly in Tokyo given Koike’s base in the capital, winning only one of its 25 districts and finishing a distant third in the capital region’s proportional representation bloc. Both opposition parties finished far behind the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito, which together won a supermajority for the third straight general election.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greeting supporters in Tokyo, October 2017. 
Kim Kyung-Hoon / REUTERS

The Party of Hope had many problems, and they began with Koike. By announcing that she would lead the party while remaining Tokyo’s governor, Koike made herself vulnerable to what the LDP’s Shinjiro Koizumi—the son of Koike’s mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi—called a “dilemma of irresponsibility.” Were she to leave the governorship to run as a Hope candidate in the election, she would abandon Tokyo at a crucial moment: the city is dealing with the controversial relocation of the Tsukiji fish market and preparing for the 2020 Olympics. On the other hand, if she stayed on as governor and did not run, she would undermine her claim that the Party of Hope sought to become Japan’s second major party and eventually take power. After all, this would have left unanswered the question of who would be prime minister if the Party of Hope were to form a government.

In the weeks before the start of the campaign on October 10, Koike repeatedly denied that she would stand as a candidate. But she offered few hints as to her party’s choice for prime minister, fueling speculation that she would change her mind. Meanwhile, opinion polls showed that the public overwhelmingly opposed her leaving the governorship to run for a seat in the Diet. By the time the campaign began, her apparent equivocation had made her seem more interested in responding to poll data than in risking her personal standing to directly challenge the prime minister, and it became clear she would not run in the election.

More damaging to the Party of Hope’s chances, however, was its decision to align with the centrist Democratic Party (DP), Japan’s biggest opposition party in the last Diet. Days after Koike created the Party of Hope, Seiji Maehara, the DP’s leader, announced that the two parties would discuss joining forces ahead of the general election. Under the merger, the DP would withdraw its backing for its candidates—including those already in the Diet—and encourage them to run with Koike’s party instead.

Koike’s young party has emerged from the general election with an identity crisis.

The announcement was a shock, surprising many DP lawmakers, and it transformed the campaign. Suddenly, the Party of Hope gained access to a pool of candidates backed by the DP’s war chest. Yet the merger also muddied the Party of Hope’s public image. Koike’s party took on the DP’s baggage, especially the lingering public resentment over how its antecedent, the Democratic Party of Japan, performed while in government from 2009 to 2012. This should have been no surprise: the DP had long polled in the single digits, and voters expected little from Maehara’s leadership, which began on September 1 and quickly ran into problems after a number of defections and an internal scandal. By taking on the DP’s candidates, Koike also picked up those troubles, letting Abe criticize the Party of Hope as little more than a rebranding exercise.

Making matters worse, Koike prevented some liberal DP candidates from joining the Party of Hope by requiring that party members support revising Japan’s pacifist constitution. The decision was an attempt to exclude DP liberals, and it was sensible: the DP had long been dogged by disputes between its left and right wings, and absorbing all of the DP’s candidates would have made the Party of Hope into a rebranding exercise, just as its critics had charged. But even DP members who joined the Party of Hope suggested that Koike’s handling of the merger was too severe. Meanwhile, by imposing conditions that the DP’s liberal wing could not possibly meet, Koike freed dozens of ex-DP members to form their own party—the CDPJ, which the lawmaker Yukio Edano launched on October 2. Still more ex-DP lawmakers, including the former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and former party leader Katsuya Okada, chose to run as independents. The result was that in the vast majority of Japan’s 289 single-member constituencies, which elect representatives in a first-past-the-post system, several opposition candidates split the vote and made it easier for the ruling party to win.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara at a news conference in Tokyo, October 2017.
Issei Kato / REUTERS

The biggest reason for the Party of Hope’s failure and the CDPJ’s success had less to do with Koike’s political calculations than with her misreading of the electorate. Koike’s vision for the Party of Hope was what she called “reform conservativism,” harkening back to Junichiro Koizumi’s populist, center-right approach. The party’s platform combined conservative positions on the constitution and foreign policy with a mix of proposals—phasing out nuclear power, scrapping an increase in the consumption tax planned for 2019, and taxing corporate cash reserves—that seemed to have little in common apart from their popularity in public opinion polls. Koike deepened the public’s impression that those positions were opportunistic by signaling her willingness to compromise on just about all of them. (For example, hours after the party released its manifesto, which included a proposal to study a tax on corporate reserves, Koike said in an interview that the party was not necessarily “fixated” on a tax.) At the same time, she gave mixed signals about her willingness to work with the LDP after the election, suggesting at times that Hope would deal with Abe and at others that it would oppose him. Edano and the CDPJ, on the other hand, offered uncompromising opposition to Abe and the LDP across the board. That approach proved more in tune with what voters wanted than Koike’s attempt to revive Koizumi’s playbook.

Koike’s young party has emerged from the general election facing an identity crisis. Defections from the Party of Hope to the CDPJ are possible; its leadership problem is acute, since it still needs someone to head the party in the Diet; and it will have to decide how much to work with Abe’s government, particularly when it comes to revising Japan’s constitution. (The ruling coalition’s supermajority means revision will likely be a priority in 2018.) Regardless of whether the Party of Hope can overcome these challenges and find a role for itself in the new Diet, Koike’s ambitions have taken a blow.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • TOBIAS HARRIS is an analyst at Teneo Intelligence and the Economy, Trade, and Business Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
  • More By Tobias Harris