Japanese Politics: Exciting for Once

The stage is set for an epic general election in Japan, pitting the longest-serving post-war prime minister, Shinzo Abe, against the first woman to have a decent shot at becoming Japan’s first female premier, Tokyo’s popular governor Yuriko Koike.

The epic struggle was triggered by Abe’s decision Monday to dissolve Parliament and call a snap election for October 22. It would be Abe’s third and unquestionably hardest election since he took office in late 2012.

Almost simultaneously Koike announced that she had formed a new political party which she calls in English The Party of Hope, in which to challenge the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

At a press conference Koike pledged to “re-set Japanese politics. “We’ll take on drastic changes where necessary.”

She said she wasn’t running just to come in second in the upcoming race and become another impotent fringe opposition group. A year ago she crushed the LDP candidate to win the governor’s post under the political banner “Tokyo First.”

Her chances of winning increased dramatically this week when a stony-faced Seiji Maehara, newly elected leader of the Democratic Party (DP), announced he planned to dissolve his party’s caucus in the House of Representatives and join the Party of Hope.

Currently, the DP has 88 members in the lower house of parliament, making it legislature’s second-largest political bloc. That compares with 14 Hopers as of the end of a hectic week for politics in Japan, a number that is sure to grow. Even before Maehara’s announcement the DP had begun bleeding members to Koike’s party.

Among the most prominent members to jump ship was Goshi Hosono, a former cabinet minister in the DP’s only stint in government (2009-2012) and later the secretary general of the opposition party.

It is widely believed that Abe decided to call for a general election at this time to take advantage of the disarray among the opposition and to strike before Koike’s new party could get itself organized, identify candidates, raise money and do all the other chores that come with electioneering.

Maehara’s surprise announcement helps solves that problem, since any individual DP party member who decides to join the Party of Hope would bring with him his own local support group and fundraisers without Koike having to do anything. For the moment she eschews the title of “leader” in favor of “Chief Representative.”

To hear her talk, however, she will be too busy running Tokyo to get deeply involved in the election campaign. At a press conference she said, “I plan to stay in the city and put my energy into leading Tokyo to prepare for the Olympics.”

It is fair to say that not too many people believe that. If it gets to the point where it looks like she has a decent chance of becoming premier, she might resign and seek to win a seat in parliament for herself.

The first polling since she announced shows her new party is getting some traction. According to a poll by the Mainichi newspaper, 18 percent of the respondents planed to vote for the Hope party, while 29 percent would vote for the LDP.

In the last poll by Nikkei before the snap election announcement, 44 percent said they planned to vote for the LDP and only 8 percent for the hapless Democrats, which may be one reason it has decided to disband.

Maehara stressed that his move didn’t amount to a merger. The Democrats won’t automatically be enrolled under the Party of Hope banner. They will have to be vetted by Koike to see whether their political views are compatible.

But what are her political views? Koike went a long way in last year’s Tokyo election being fairly vague on her proposals, campaigning on the need for government transparency and the public’s “right to know.” But can she go all the way on October 22 just on a platform of good government?

The LDP is sure to attack her for lack of specifics. Shortly after his announcement Abe made his own specific proposal to use money from a scheduled rise in the national sales tax to fund kindergartens and childcare – issues appealing to women.

During her year as governor, Koike has had very little to say on national issues such as the North Korean missile threat, status of the Imperial family or how to amend the constitution.

Gradually issues are beginning to emerge. They paint a picture of a basically conservative leader with some liberal impulses. For example, she has said she wants to entirely phase out nuclear power, while Abe says it must remain as part of the energy mix.

The Democratic Party has long been an unwieldy coalition of differing views, harkening back to its formation by disaffected LDPers and socialists. The more conservative members, such as Maehara himself, might feel comfortable in Hope, while the more liberals might gravitate to smaller left-wing parties like the social democrats.

Koike is okay with the controversial secrets act passed by the Abe government, which many liberals deplore but which she thinks is necessary for national security. It should be remembered that she served as Abe’s security advisor in his first term (2006-2007) and later as minister of defense.

The situation is too fluid to speculate on the number of seats Hope can win though it now seems likely that Abe will have to settle for, at best, a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds supermajority he enjoys now with his coalition partner Komeito.

That means he might have to give up his dream of amending the constitution and altering the pacifistic Article 9 since any change in the constitution would require a supermajority in both houses of parliament.