Last weekend, an assembly election for Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government resulted in a sweeping victory for populist Governor Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First no Kai, or “Tokyo Citizens First” Party. Most notably, it saw Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the nation’s longstanding ruling party, receive a record low of only 23 out of 127 assembly seats — down from its current 57 seats. This is a direct reflection of the recent nosedive in popularity experienced by Prime Minister Abe and the LDP following a string of scandals and criticisms in recent months.
The city election is widely considered a precursor to the national election. Until recently, Prime Minister Abe — Japan’s third-longest serving premier since World War II — has been expected to be re-elected by the LDP for a third term next year, which would make him the longest-serving Prime Minister in history. In fact, a Prime Minister is currently allowed only two terms with the LDP, but, due to Abe’s high popularity, the LDP has been planning to adjust the rules to permit a candidate to run for a third term. This would allow him to carry out his agenda and retain the legacy of serving during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. However, the sudden populist win and LDP seat loss in Tokyo signals the possibility that he could be replaced in the national elections in December 2018.
A former LDP member, Governor Koike is the first female leader of the nation’s capital. She angered senior LDP members when she ran for Tokyo governor last year and, again, when she defected from the party last month to form Tomin First no Kai, citing the LDP as an anti-reform “old boys’ club.” She campaigned on a reformist agenda focused on open government and cost-cutting. Now 64, she was formerly a TV newscaster before serving as Minister of Environment and Minister of Defense. Many speculate that she will eventually return to parliament to run for Prime Minister. Considering her strong track record in government, her high approval ratings, recognition for being media-savvy, and fluency in English and Arabic, she is well-positioned for the role.
People in Japan have generally been apathetic toward politics, but a recent wave of energy and attention is coming to the surface. With her TV background and as one of the first prominent female political personalities in Japan, Koike has attracted audiences previously uninterested in politics. In fact, this election had an 8 percent increase in voter turnout from the previous poll four years ago — from 43 percent to 51 percent — which is higher than usual for Japanese voters. This is due to her popularity as well as to the recent public incidents faced by Prime Minister Abe and his party. For example, in a highly uncommon occurrence, protestors rallied at a recent public speech by the Prime Minister; LDP members were later disparaged for trying to cover their signs and criticizing them for their interference.
However, this swing in public favor is not a complete surprise. Over the past 12 months, Prime Minister Abe and the LDP, which has been the ruling political party in Japan for all but four years since 1955, has received significant criticism for ramming through several pieces of controversial legislation that lacked public support. Among these include an “anti-conspiracy law” which allows arrests to be made before a criminal act; another law that allows Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense; and the legalization of casino gambling in Japan. Abe has also been aggressively pushing to revise the national Constitution, which has gone untouched since the end of the war. In addition to all of this, the Prime Minister has become entangled in allegations of favoritism and rumors of corruption.
At the same time, a heightened interest in the Tokyo Governor has developed due to heated debate about the relocation of The Tsukiji Market, Tokyo’s famous international fish market, and government spending for the 2020 Olympics. In addition, three Tokyo governors preceding Koike stepped down because of public scandals. It has also become clear there is a groundswell of frustration with the old, traditional system and a desire for reform — a societal momentum which Governor Koike leveraged successfully. Not only has she emerged as the only politician who poses a real threat to the dominance of the LDP, but the prominence of her role as the Tokyo Governor will be stronger over the next few years than previously expected.
We can expect an equal level of attention to be given to the national election next year. We also can expect a flood of new LDP candidates angling to replace Prime Minister Abe and primed to compete against a possible Koike run in a few years’ time. In the near term, although it is obvious that all discussion about Constitutional reform will be muted, we don’t expect much to change in terms of the existing legislative calendar.
Interestingly, the scenario playing out now is a realization of the findings in the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer released earlier this year, which indicated a possible movement in Japan toward populism as seen in other parts of the globe. In the survey, Japan was ranked “below global average” for people’s faith in the system — only 13 percent of respondents in Japan said they believe the system is working — and 53 percent expressed concern for widespread corruption. Most notably, nearly three-quarters of respondents in Japan found the “Reformer” more believable than the “Preserver of the Status Quo.” Although it’s unlikely that Governor Koike, the reformer, will scale her “Tokyo First” platform to a national level, it is clear that Japan’s political environment is heading for change.