Abe’s LDP faces stiff challenge in Tokyo assembly election

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A slew of alleged misdeeds and scandals implicating Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are expected to turn the campaign for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Election, which kicked off Friday, into the toughest battle his ruling party has seen in recent years.

The allegations, including ethics violations and a rape cover-up, plus public discontent over the underhanded steamrolling of the unpopular conspiracy bill through the Diet, are complicating the conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s bid to defend its power in the assembly.

The LDP already has its hands full fighting the new party headed by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) is threatening to dethrone the LDP on its vows to “shake up” a metropolitan assembly it says has long been crippled by corruption, vested interests and opacity.

“Unfortunately, what has happened in national politics is bound to have a detrimental impact on our standing in the upcoming Tokyo election,” veteran lawmaker Hakubun Shimomura, who doubles as Chairman of the Federation of Tokyo Metropolitan LDP Branches, admitted at a news conference in Tokyo earlier this week.

“This is technically a local race, but history shows that the outcome of the Tokyo assembly election has always affected the direction of national politics. So we must do well,” he said.

Friday saw a total of 259 candidates join the race for the 127 seats up for grabs.

Koike’s fledgling party has already found an ally in Komeito, which parted ways with the Tokyo chapter of the LDP last year after years of partnership. And a decisive victory would pose an unwelcome development to Abe amid growing speculation that Tomin First will make a foray into national politics.

For the LDP, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Opinion polls over the weekend found support plunging for Abe’s Cabinet due to the unabating Kake Gakuen scandal — in which Abe allegedly used his influence to facilitate the opening of a new veterinary department at a university run by his longtime friend Kotaro Kake — and the way in which his ruling coalition used a procedural shortcut to force the contentious conspiracy bill through the Diet last week.

An alleged rape victim who has only identified herself by her first name, Shiori, recently came forward with an allegation that a high-profile journalist with close ties to Abe assaulted her but avoided indictment, sparking speculation that the government intervened to quash the case.

At the defense ministry, too, institutional cover-ups have been alleged regarding the daily activity logs of the Ground Self-Defense Force contingent that was deployed to war-ridden South Sudan.

“Those scandals would have forced ministers or the prime minister himself into resignation a decade ago,” says Hiroshi Hirano, a professor of political psychology at Gakushuin University.

“Abe’s refusals to apologize initially helped trick the public — who were assumed to be casual readers of the news — into thinking these scandals weren’t too serious after all. But so many issues kept surfacing that it eventually became difficult for voters to remain indifferent,” Hirano noted.

Hiroshi Miura, an analyst who runs Tokyo-based election consulting firm Ask Co., also predicts a tough battle for the LDP. His estimates as of Thursday put the number of seats the LDP is likely to retain at 46, down from 57. But Miura says Koike’s Tomin First no Kai will have a hard time securing an outright victory, given the governor’s apparent “indecisiveness” in resolving the Tsukiji fish market debacle, which her critics describe as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

On Tuesday, Koike announced a combined solution that would move the fish market to the polluted Toyosu site but see the aging current site transformed into a “culinary theme park.”

Her decision to keep both sites alive seemingly backfired, “underlining her intention to curry favor with both the pro-Tsukiji and pro-Toyosu groups” and “potentially costing her trust with both sides,” Miura said.

This, coupled with the fact that many Tomin First candidates are political amateurs of varying caliber, makes the re-enactment of the so-called Koike theater, a populist wave that helped Koike become the first female governor of Tokyo in July last year, unlikely, Miura said. He expects Tomin First to come up with 44 seats including eight independents, slightly short of the LDP’s total.

The flagging popularity of both the LDP and Tomin First will in turn leave many swing voters — a major portion of the electorate — hard-pressed to find a good reason to go to the polls on July 2, according to experts.

“The most likely scenario is that opposition parties like the Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party will go all-out in bringing the Kake Gakuen scandal and the anti-Abe narrative to the fore, while parties like the LDP and Tomin First will probably stick to issues genuinely related to Tokyo, such as Tsukiji, the Olympics and the day care shortage,” Hirano pointed out.

“The result is that voters will be left wondering what the election is about and end up not bothering to vote,” he said.

Both the LDP and Tomin First are gung-ho, but the stakes are much higher for the struggling DP, which experts say is in danger of splitting up or disappearing after the election.

The DP’s Tokyo chapter controls seven seats in the assembly, followed by Komeito with 22 and the JCP with 17. The DP’s national leader, Renho, was elected president in September on hopes she would institute a striking makeover to differentiate it from the old guard.

But so far, she has failed to revamp the party’s image and its popularity is hovering below 10 percent.

Not only that, a stream of candidates who were running for the Tokyo election on the DP’s ticket have bolted the party to join Tomin First instead. The fact that Renho herself was elected from a Tokyo constituency means that a crushing defeat in the metro election would further erode her credibility within the party.

That could possibly ignite calls for Renho’s resignation, or prompt some of the lawmakers to form a new party, experts say.

“It’s hard to imagine the party not breaking up after the election is over,” Hirano said.