One month after Osaka voters said no, just barely, to his pet project of fundamentally restructuring the municipal government, Mayor Toru Hashimoto finds himself courted by an increasingly anxious Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hopes to borrow whatever is left of Hashimoto’s influence in the Japan Innovation Party, and get new security bills passed by the end of the summer.
As ever, Hashimoto is playing hard-to-get, even as he is quite happy to find himself back in the national media spotlight. However, the meeting between Hashimoto and Abe a week ago was seen in Osaka as a sign Abe’s government is getting desperate in the face of expert consensus the bills are unconstitutional, and needs all the allies he can find to pass them before the September, when the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election takes place.
Clearly, Abe is courting Hashimoto to pressure coalition partner Komeito (the “liberal” wing of the Liberal Democratic Party?). However, last week’s meeting was also another step in the longer-term effort by Abe and his allies to separate Hashimoto and his most ardent supporters in his Japan Innovation Party of constitutional revision from the rest of the party.
Yet if anything formal does happen between Abe and Hashimoto, it will have to take place with Komeito’s blessing. This is because, unlike Hashimoto’s party, Komeito has deep experience with, and knowledge of, two critical ministries LDP members cannot afford to alienate lest they anger supporters back home. These are the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
A Komeito representative held the transport ministry post for four years, between 2004 and 2008. The current minister, Akihiro Ota, is from Komeito and has run the ministry since December 2012. Komeito also has a good deal of influence within the health ministry, having had a member serve as minister between 2001 and 2005 and playing something of a mentor role to LDP ministers since.
No politician of any party can expect to get re-elected if they fail to meet the welfare needs of their elderly voters or secure permission, and money, for local transport infrastructure projects (needed or not) for their financial backers. Hashimoto’s political and economic philosophy of bureaucratic cuts and privatization of public services might draw praise from wealthy senior corporate executives, foreign investors and the business media, but it’s viewed with deep suspicion by those two ministries (and, of course, by millions of Japanese voters worried about poverty after retirement).
By September’s LDP presidential election, Abe might find himself under attack by LDP members worried his courtship of Hashimoto could make their own lives more difficult at these key ministries.
Yet none of this is to say Hashimoto’s political career will end in November when he leaves office, despite his announced intention to retire from politics. An appointment to some blue-ribbon committee is possible. Assuming that Abe’s LDP rivals, who see his falling poll numbers and sense an opportunity, don’t unseat him September or that if Abe is replaced, it’s by somebody who is willing to work with Hashimoto.
At the moment, however, Hashimoto and his party are divided. His local Osaka party members remain bitter at their defeat in the May referendum to merge the city, which was due to LDP-led opposition. They hate the thought of cooperating with the LDP, and for many, constitutional revision, or Abe’s view of it at least, was never a priority.
Thus, for Abe, the question is how to utilize Hashimoto and his party to maximum political advantage. However, given Hashimoto’s testy relationships with other parties and the central bureaucracy, combined with divisions within his own party that could split it and Abe’s declining popularity, perhaps the more pertinent question to be asked is: Will it make any difference to Abe’s own future even if he does?
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.