“Hillary [Clinton] used the word 'glass ceiling' ... but in Japan, it isn't glass, it's an iron plate. I'm not Mrs Thatcher, but what is needed is a strategy that advances a cause with conviction, clear policies and sympathy with the people.”
Thus spoke Yuriko Koike in September 2008 in her initial bid to become Japan’s first woman Prime Minister as she stood in a leadership contest for the ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) in which she ultimately came third (to now finance minister Taro Aso). It is a philosophy to which she has adhered in the years since and one which many believe leave her well placed still to become Prime Minister at some stage.
This being said, although media attention globally is firmly focused on Ms Koike ahead of Japan’s 22 October snap general, it is not, as yet, clear that she is about to make a second bid for the premiership. Now governor of Tokyo after she trounced the LDP candidate in July 2016, she seems inclined at present to remain in her current job rather than stepping down to stand for the lower house of Diet, Japan’s parliament, for which all 465 seats (reduced from 475 in the previous election in a modest step to try to reduce the bias in favour of — traditionally LDP-supporting — rural seats) are up for grabs.
What is clear is that, in setting up a completely new party — Kibo no To (Party of Hope) — and effectively driving the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) into liquidation in its favour, Ms Koike has dramatically changed the dynamics of what had previously looked like a fairly humdrum election and another reasonably straightforward victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Will opportunism backfire?
Mr Abe must certainly have seen victory as straightforward when, a fortnight or so ago, he first mulled aloud about the possibility of a snap election — some 14 months before he needs to go to the country. Thanks significantly to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula, following a sharp dip earlier in the year triggered by corruption scandals his personal approval rating had recovered to around 50%. Furthermore, the state of total disarray prevailing in the DP sent what appeared to be a clear signal that the electorate would not be offered a remotely credible alternative. What some would see as an opportunistic (even cynical) move, therefore seemed to make sound political sense.
Even now faced with a fresh opposition threat, the odds must favour Mr Abe’s LDP. As I wrote for The Global Lead on 9 August:
“As for the opposition, I don't underestimate Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike But turning her Tokyo-centric party, Tomin Fāsuto no Kai, into a credible threat nationally against the LDP's electoral machine is/would be a huge task — bigger, in my view, than that which confronted Emmanuel Macron in France. Keep in mind too that, even after a law was passed to reduce malapportionment of electoral seats earlier this year, the 'system' still favours the LDP; and it is likely to continue to do so at least until after a redistricting which has been promised in the wake of the 2020 census.”
However, as I continued:
“On the other hand, opinion polls which simply look at levels of support are misleading in that a majority of Japanese do not loyally support any political party, such is the level of general disdain for the political classes. This does leave open the door potentially to an insurgent of some sort.”
The latest opinion polls I have seen still give the LDP — at around 29% — a double-digit lead over Kibo no To. However, with at least 40% of the electorate ‘undecided’ and with Kibo no To seemingly having momentum there is every reason to suppose that the LDP may be vulnerable.
How to pull off a major upset
As most, if not all, of Japan's electorate will be quick to realise, on many issues there is little to choose between the LDP and Kibo no To (which is hardly surprising given Ms Koike’s background). However, in two important policy areas the latter is taking a differentiating and decidedly populist stance. First, she has committed to freeze the LDP’s proposed hike in consumption tax in October 2019 (which Mr Abe is trying to make more palatable by promising to spend some of the additional revenue on reducing education costs for working families rather than on deficit reduction). Second, she has promised to phase out nuclear power, albeit without committing to a date.
It may also be important that, given her strong stance on national security and time as an adviser to the Prime Minister on defence (as well as, albeit very briefly, Defence Minister in 2007), Ms Koike could neutralise to some extent the ‘bounce’ from which Mr Abe has benefited thanks to the Korean crisis.
Herein, in my view, lies the critical point. If Kibo no To is to have any real chance of winning this election I believe that Ms Koike has to bite the bullet, stand for parliament and put herself forward as its candidate for Prime Minister despite the inevitable criticism she will face if she does over ‘abandoning’ her current responsibilities as Governor of Tokyo. Furthermore, although she may prefer to hold off making a final decision until she can better assess the likelihood of her party prevailing, the very short time period between now and polling day means that she really has to commit very soon indeed.
Personality over policy?
If Ms Koike does so, the election will likely come down to a battle of personalities between her and Mr Abe, with policy differences (such as they are) largely taking a back seat. On this count she is a proven force, having not only won the 2016 gubernatorial race in Tokyo against the LDP ‘establishment’ but also produced a resounding second victory, this time for her party, Tomin Fasuto no Kai (now superseded by Kibo no To), in coalition with the Buddhist Komeito, in the 2 July Tokyo Metropolitan election. Furthermore, in the most recent polls Mr Abe’s approval ratings seem to be sliding again, back below 40%.
Ms Koike therefore appears to be well-placed to attract the two constituencies at which political commentator Yuki Tatsumi believes she is principally pitching, ie frustrated supporters of the ruling LDP/Komeito coalition and those who want to see a credible alternative to the LDP but who have become disillusioned with the DP. But even then she will need to energise the electorate and get the vote out probably even more impressively than her former mentor Junichiro Koizumi did at the start of this century.
As if these were not challenges enough, Ms Koike also has to stamp her personal authority on the campaign. Melding the traditionally very different policy leanings of the left-of-centre DP with her own broadly conservative stance will not be straightforward — and Kibo no To will need the full cooperation of the DP’s network if it is to compete effectively on a national scale. And it is only likely to be complicated further by the defection to Kibo no To of several political heavyweights among whom no structure or hierarchy has yet been established. As things stand, therefore, the risk of a damaging lack of campaign discipline appears to be high.
All about Abe?
“So the key issue to look for in the next month isn’t whether Abe is on track to win a majority. It’s how big a majority he’s likely to win — and what that means for Japan and the rest of the world.”
Putting all of this together, although I certainly do not rule out a Macron-esque victory for Ms Koike and Kibo no To, I still think the most probable outcome of the election is yet another win for the LDP. However, this could still amount to a de facto defeat for Mr Abe personally given what I see as a strong likelihood that the LDP will be returned with significantly fewer than the 287 seats it currently holds (according to the parliament’s website); and that it will almost certainly suffer a net loss of 14 seats, thereby falling below the two-thirds majority (needed to pursue Mr Abe’s long-standing objective of constitutional reform) it currently enjoys with its coalition partner Komeito (35 seats).
Mr Abe has said that he would continue as Prime Minister provided he retains a simple majority, ie 233 seats in the next parliament. In so saying, he appeared to mean the retention of such a majority by his current LDP/Komeito coalition rather than just the LDP - which may be as well since it does now look like it may be a sizeable ‘ask’ for the LDP alone to beat this target. In either case, securing only a slim majority would seriously damage him and, even if he were to survive in office for now, he may well be forced out come the time of the leadership contest which his party must hold no later than September of next year.
There may also a possibility that, in the event of a really close outcome and the LDP failing to secure a majority in its own right, Komeito may, as it did in Tokyo earlier this year (albeit before the ballot was held), decide to align itself with Ms Koike, thereby allowing her to form the next government. Although this looks right now to be no more than a tail risk, given all the moving parts currently in play it would be unwise to rule it out totally.
The bottom line
In conclusion, the most likely answer to Mr Beauchamp’s question quoted at the start of the previous section is that we shall see a weakened government in Japan, probably led in the short-term by a badly wounded Shinzo Abe. In other words, even if Ms Koike cannot reach the heights achieved by France’s Emmanuel Macron earlier this year, Mr Abe may well find himself testing the depths to which the UK’s Theresa May has sunk. At a time when the world is grappling with a major crisis in the region and when drastic measures needed to fix Japan’s ailing economy are long overdue, this would not be a good outcome.