For the second time since returning to the prime minister’s office in 2012, Shinzo Abe has called for a snap election. His calculus seems to revolve around timing. A drop in Abe’s approval ratings this summer shook confidence in his leadership, and rumblings of new contenders for the presidency of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) began to emerge.
It is a risky move; some would even say a cynical one, based largely on the idea that Japan’s opposition parties were in such disarray that the LDP would have little competition. But this year’s snap election has set in motion a new round of political realignment. In a surprise turn of events, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has met the prime minister’s electoral challenge and used this snap election to build a new opposition party.
Koike announced the formation of the Party of Hope (Kibō no Tō) on September 25, changing the dynamics of the October 22 election. With defectors from the crumbling Democratic Party moving to her side, the new party as of today has around 80 of its own candidates for the lower house lined up and potentially 130 former Democratic Party members in the wings.
Koike’s new party will field more than 220 candidates, four times the number her Tokyo First party ran in July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. In that contest, she had amazing results: 49 of 50 of Koike’s candidates were elected by Tokyo voters. If that margin carries in the lower house, she could end up leading Japan’s largest opposition party—one that could give the LDP a run for its money.
This realignment comes at the expense of the Democratic Party (DP). As more and more of the DP’s policy-savvy centrists left the party last week to join the Party of Hope, DP President Seiji Maehara took the unusual step of announcing that the DP would not even run candidates in this election and urged his party’s members to bandwagon with the Party of Hope in order to defeat the LDP. This prompted even more knocks at Koike’s door, but she publicly stated she would vet incoming members for their positions on policy before accepting them en masse.
Building a new party in the midst of an election campaign is no easy feat, however. In contrast to the former Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which led the country from 2009-2012, the Party of Hope is not setting out to be a liberal alternative to the LDP. Koike has made it clear that she wants to give Japanese voters a better conservative choice.
Koike is counting on attracting LDP voters who were shaken by the Abe cabinet’s scandals. She has positioned the Party of Hope as an advocate for transparency in governance, a position she took in her campaign for governor of Tokyo and again in the Tokyo Assembly elections.
While Koike has described her party as reform-minded, its platform looks largely to be in line with the LDP’s goals. One pledge is conspicuously different, however. The Party of Hope would like to postpone the final hike in Japan’s consumption tax, scheduled for 2019. Gaining popular support for the two percent increase in the consumption tax was Prime Minister Abe’s rationale for this year’s snap election. Yet Abe promised to use the new revenue for childcare and other social subsidies rather than to pay down government debt.
For now, the Japanese public seems intrigued by Koike’s new party. Polling suggests that the Koike-led challenge to the Abe cabinet is gaining momentum. Immediately following Koike’s announcement of the new party last week, its support was only in the single digits. Yet a poll taken by the Yomiuri Shimbun over the weekend put Party of Hope support at 19 percent, behind the LDP’s 34 percent. On Sunday, Japanese media focused on a Kyodo News poll that suggested the gap was narrowing with the Party of Hope at 15 percent and the LDP at 24 percent.
Much could depend on Koike’s own popularity. Whether the Tokyo governor will join in the race remains to be seen. For now, she plans to sit out the lower house campaign, saying that she will remain where she is for the time being. For Koike and her new party, establishing a foothold in the Japanese Diet may be the first step to a larger challenge of Japan’s longstanding conservative party.
As important as numbers is a consensus on policy goals. Clearly, Koike wants to avoid building a party with the kind of internal cleavages that weakened the DPJ, the first party that was strong enough to oust the LDP from power. Rising Japanese concern over missile testing by North Korea also highlights the need for a clear position on Japan’s defenses. Koike is asking new entrants to her party to support Japan’s expanded defense role, including acceptance of the 2015 security legislation and the right of collective self-defense, and she is also asking for an openness to constitutional revision. This will make it difficult for the left-leaning members of the DPJ to enter the party, but it is designed to avoid the fatal policy divisions that undermined their ability to govern.
Abe’s coalition of LDP and Komeito parties was expected to lose its supra majority even without the new Koike challenge. On September 26, the official lower house website put the number of LDP seats at 287 and the number for Komeito at 35, for a total of 322 seats in the ruling coalition out of a 475-seat house. Election redistricting has reduced the number of seats, and so in this election, only 465 seats will remain. Abe has said he understands this his ruling coalition may only get a simply majority in this round of elections. An internal LDP survey reportedly showed that the coalition would drop from 322 to 280 seats, leaving the government parties far short of seats needed to feel comfortable in their ability to control the legislative agenda. If true, this loss of seats would also put an end to early prospects for the revision of the Japanese constitution, one of the prime minister’s personal goals. If Japanese voters decide that the time has come for something new and different this October, the Party of Hope could be in a position to temper the government’s legislative agenda.
Equally important are the election’s implications for Japan’s foreign policy. Several issues can be expected on the campaign trail. The first, of course, is Japan’s defense in the face of the rising North Korea challenge. Abe has already laid out the North Korean threat as one of his two defining issues.
A second issue liable to come up in debate is the Abe-Trump relationship. Given Abe’s close relationship with the unpredictable U.S. president, expect to see this highlighted as a plus for the LDP. Moreover, Abe has come to be seen outside Japan as a stabilizing influence on the global liberal order, as Japan continues to urge the United States to return to multilateral governance institutions that Trump has decried.
Finally, the core issue of Japan’s approach to military force has to come up. The prime minister has advocated constitutional revision and earlier this year focused in on revising Article 9 to ensure that the Self-Defense Force (SDF) is constitutional. Even more urgent, however, may be the upcoming five-year defense plan, in which the government is seeking to improve Japan’s missile defenses and perhaps even argue for introducing a retaliatory strike capability to the SDF’s arsenal. Both of these enhancements are in response to Pyongyang’s growing missile range and its ambition to add nuclear warheads in the hopes of decoupling Washington from its allies in Tokyo and Seoul.
Koike is not likely to take issue with strengthening Japan’s defenses, nor will many of those who rallied to her side be faint of heart about preparing to contend with a belligerent Pyongyang. She was, after all, Japan’s defense minister, and allied with her now are some of the DPJ’s more realist security thinkers, including Aki Nagashima, who served as Prime Minister Noda’s national security advisor, and Goshi Hosono, who led the U.S.-Japan task force that responded to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors during the 2011 disasters. All are well known in Washington; all are supporters of close alliance cooperation with the United States.
The Party of Hope’s position on constitutional revision, however, may be a bit less clear. The prime minister has long advocated that the time is ripe for revising the document that has guided Japanese politics since 1947. Koike has also in the past supported revision. Today, however, she and her new party may not have this on their immediate agenda. Whether they agree on what needs to be revised, or on how soon, remains to be seen.
This snap election began as an effort by the prime minister to shore up public support. 2018 brings some difficult decisions for the Abe cabinet: ensuring economic growth, expanding government support for childcare and the elderly, and providing for national security in the midst of an increasingly volatile region are all high on his priority list. The Abe cabinet may be counting on Japan’s voters to opt for what they know rather than seeking political change.
And yet, there is opportunity for those who seek a different path for Japan. Koike has created an alternative conservative identity and a more compassionate conservative option. Whether she and her new party can make inroads in this election remains to be seen, but once more the excitement of political realignment has taken hold in Japan.
If nothing else, Governor Koike has guaranteed that the prime minister’s snap election will be far more contested—and thus far more interesting—than he originally thought.