Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the leader of her new Party of Hope, at a news conference to announce the party's campaign platform in Tokyo, Japan, September 27, 2017. Reuters/Issei Kato
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the leader of her new Party of Hope, at a news conference to announce the party's campaign platform in Tokyo, Japan, September 27, 2017. Reuters/Issei Kato

It’s the electoral wildcard that could upset Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes of solidifying his grip on power in Japan.

The Party of Hope spearheaded by popular Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike was only announced this week, but plans to field dozens of candidates in a snap general election called for next month that could  weaken the control of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

“Koike party candidates will either win in Kanto area districts [which include greater Tokyo] or split the conservatives so as to allow the progressive candidate to slip through,” Michael Thomas Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University Japan, said in an email.

“Either outcome is catastrophic for the LDP and Mr Abe.”

Until Koike’s plans were announced on Monday, the lower house election was shaping up to be a fairly banal affair, with voters not seeing the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) as a credible alternative to the LDP, despite allegations of cronyism dragging down Abe in opinion polls.

Hence, the LDP’s electoral dominance was not in any serious doubt.

A poll taken at the weekend by the Kyodo news agency found the LDP enjoyed support of about 27 per cent, well ahead of the DP on 8 per cent. Four in 10 voters remained undecided, indicating turnout could be low – a factor that traditionally helps the LDP.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces a snap election at a news conference in his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, September 25, 2017. Reuters/Toru Hanai

However, a survey by the Nikkei business newspaper at the weekend indicated 44% of respondents planned to vote for the LDP, though it also pegged the DP at 8%.

With the North Korea threat giving a boost to Abe’s popularity numbers – now around 50% from record lows around 30% in July – the prime minister took a gamble by triggering a lower house election that could have been held as late as the end of 2018.

Apparently, the justification for the early poll was his proposal to redirect some of the proceeds of a scheduled increase in the consumption tax towards a child care and education package.

“I have decided that I must seek the mandate of the people immediately,” said Abe, who has held the prime ministership since late 2012. His ruling coalition goes into the election defending a sizeable majority in the lower house.

Critics said the election is opportunistic as he is trying to capitalise on the DP’s woes given the main opposition party installed a new leader, Seiji Maehara, only a few weeks ago.

Sending the nation to the polls also means Abe will not have to face new rounds of parliamentary questioning this week on the cronyism allegations, they say.

The Koike factor

Just hours before Abe’s formal announcement on Monday evening, Koike revealed she would serve as the leader of the new national party that was already being initiated by some of her allies in the Diet.

This caused a sensation because of her recent success in drubbing the LDP.

Koike, a former LDP environment and defence minister, was elected Tokyo’s first female governor last year after she ran as an independent against an LDP-backed candidate.

In July this year, she led her upstart Tomin (Tokyo Residents) First Party to a landslide victory in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, handing the LDP its worst defeat in a Tokyo municipal election.

Koike said she would stay on as governor and wouldn’t seek a seat in parliament’s lower house yet, but by serving as national leader of the new party she has already given it a high public profile.

Yuriko Koike, the leader of the new Party of Hope, at a news conference to announce a campaign platform in Tokyo, Japan, September 27, 2017. Reuters/Issei Kato

“Japan is talking about reform while its presence is declining. Can we really leave things up to them?” Koike said, seemingly painting herself as a populist public defender against the political establishment.

Her suite of policies remains vague, although she has questioned the effectiveness of the prime minister’s flagship economic policy known as “Abenomics” and has called for a delay in the consumption tax increase until people can feel an economic recovery.

Speaking alongside Diet allies on Wednesday, Koike characterised the new political group as a ”tolerant, reform-minded conservative party” that aimed to “reset” Japanese politics by eschewing established interests.

She reportedly met with Maehara, the DP leader, on Tuesday night to discuss a possible alliance or collaboration. There is also speculation she may run on a platform to end the country’s dependence on nuclear power.

Abe implied on Monday that the governor should focus on important city business. “With Governor Koike we have to make the Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in 2020 successful,” he said.

Narrow window

Tobias Harris, vice president of political and business advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, said opinion polls indicated voters were not yet impressed by the Koike-aligned party, although they were yet to see the details. He noted Koike had little much time to make a difference.

“The real test will be once the party’s message gets hammered out, once Koike starts campaigning, and once we see how many new faces they can bring into politics,” Harris said in an email.

“I think she’s left herself a pretty narrow window, although by waiting until pretty much the last possible moment to signal that she will in fact take a leadership role maximizes the chances of a boom in popularity that brings out independents and drives up Hope’s vote total. But we’ll see.”

Harris said that in light of Koike’s base of support in the capital city, the party was likely to focus on Tokyo and the North and South Kanto regions near the capital.

“My guess is that to the extent Hope is running candidates outside of Kanto, they will be defectors from other parties already representing other constituencies,” he said.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announce the name of her new political party at the Metropolitan Government Building, Japan, Sept. 25, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Harris noted that the LDP would not be the only party to face a challenge from the new party. “Running candidates in Kanto will a) make life more difficult for the LDP, which is defending most of those seats and b) will make it harder for the DP to recover, since any path back to health will lead through urban constituencies.”

University of Tokyo professor Yu Uchiyama said if Koike gets enough viable candidates and forms a distinctive policy platform, the Hope Party will have a great impact on the election.

“It might be possible for the party to sweep the districts in Tokyo,” he said by email.

“As for the timing, Koike should have committed herself to the party earlier. I am afraid there is not enough time for the party to prepare for the election. Probably Abe dissolved the lower house much earlier than she expected.”

North Korea threat

Abe is set to dissolve the lower house on Thursday, with the election expected to be held on October 22.

It comes as North Korea tensions loom large. In recent weeks, Pyongyang has twice test-fired missiles over Japan’s northern prefecture of Hokkaido into the Pacific Ocean. Residents were awoken by early morning emergency alerts telling them to take cover as a precaution.

Kim Jong-un’s regime has also indicated that it views US President Donald Trump’s comments over the past week as a declaration of war, and that it could respond by testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean or to shoot down US strategic bomber planes even if they were outside North Korean airspace.

This might seem to be a risky time to launch an election campaign, but Abe argued crisis management efforts would continue unaffected.

Security expert Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said Abe’s firm line on North Korea – insisting on pressure rather than dialogue, while maintaining close cooperation with the US – had helped him recover his public standing.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, Feb. 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg

“The North Korean crisis is helping Mr Abe politically,” Michishita said in an interview. He backed Abe’s clear efforts to stay close to the US president.

“That’s actually a very good approach because Mr Trump is kind of unpredictable, so remaining close to him and winning his confidence is very important,” Michishita said.

“Abe’s personal relationship with Mr Trump has become an asset not only to Japan but to the countries in this region because the people tend to look to Mr Abe to keep Mr Trump informed about the situation in this region and encourage him to take necessary and appropriate measures in dealing with the situation.”

Constitutional gamble

The election has implications for another security matter: the fate of Abe’s long-held goal to revise Japan’s war-renouncing constitution.

The LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito currently hold more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house – the “super-majority” that is necessary to propose constitutional changes that would then be put to the public at a national referendum. Pro-constitutional revision forces also hold a super-majority in the upper house, which is not part of the forthcoming election.

Temple University’s Cucek said Abe’s move was risky.

“In calling this election, Abe went against constitutional revisionists in the LDP. They had an entire schedule for submitting, considering then voting on constitutional amendments over 2017-2018, with referendum next fall,” Cucek said.

“If Abe’s dissolution gambit leads to the loss of a revision majority, Abe’s will not be reelected leader.”

The LDP’s next leadership vote is due in September 2018 and the election results could influence Abe’s long-term prospects. Uchiyama noted, however, that Koike’s party may not end up being an obstacle to constitutional changes.

“It is possible that Abe will lose the super-majority of two thirds in the lower house,” Uchiyama said.

“However, since Ms Koike is sympathetic to constitutional reform, Abe might make an alliance for constitutional reform with Koike and ensure the supermajority, provided Koike’s new party does fairly well.”