National / Politics

Yuriko Koike ally seeks to loosen ruling party's grip on national politics

by Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro

Bloomberg

A close ally of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike who helped an upstart group crush the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo’s local elections two months ago is setting up a political organization to attempt a similar feat at the national level.

Masaru Wakasa is sifting through hundreds of applications from around the country for entry to a “political school,” with a view to having some run for the Diet under a party he will establish by December, the lawmaker and former LDP member said in an interview.

Abe has faced little coherent opposition since he took office in 2012, even though his popularity has waned amid a series of scandals ahead of elections due by December next year. The main opposition Democratic Party, mired by in-house bickering, has failed to generate any bump in public support even after it chose a new leader last week.

“A lot of people have been supporting the LDP in a negative way,” Wakasa, 60, said at his office this week. “It’s not that they actually think the LDP is good, but just that there’s no alternative.”

The first lecture for the 200 or so successful applicants to Wakasa’s “Nippon First” school will be given by Koike, who defeated Abe’s candidate in a leadership contest last year and went on to form Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), a new party that she led to victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July.

Wakasa, who lacks Koike’s widespread recognition, faces hurdles to replicating her success in the national election. A survey by the Mainichi newspaper from Sept. 2 to 3 found only a third of respondents had positive expectations for the new group, while more than half said they did not.

Support for the ruling LDP was at 29 percent in the Mainichi poll, while the Democratic Party garnered only 5 percent. Half said they favored no party.

“He could do very well, or very badly — a lot depends on what happens to the Democratic Party,” said Steven Reed, a professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. Wakasa is more likely to secure numbers by recruiting existing independent lawmakers and potential defectors from among disaffected Democratic Party members, rather than by expecting large numbers of new recruits to win election, Reed added.

While the new party’s policy platform is undecided, it will be broadly “conservative” but pro-reform and slightly to the left of Abe’s administration, Wakasa said, adding that he didn’t support the current administration’s efforts to loosen restrictions on the military under the pacifist Constitution.

The former prosecutor, who supported Koike’s campaigns, wants half his party’s lawmakers to be women. Less than 10 percent of the Lower House is female, despite Abe’s target of having women take 30 percent of management positions in all fields by 2020. Wakasa also aims to rid policymaking of vested interests, he said.

“The LDP is all about vested interests,” Wakasa said. “If we don’t get away from that, Japan will go into decline for the next 30 years.”