Just hours before his announcement last month that he would dissolve the Lower House for a snap election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was blindsided by his biggest political adversary of late: Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. The telegenic, populist governor had upstaged Abe by announcing that she would create a new political party, Kibo no To (Party of Hope), in a bid to boot him out of power in the Oct. 22 vote.
But by the time the race officially kicked off Tuesday, what was initially heralded as yet another example of Koike’s political showmanship had quickly lost steam, with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party forecast to avoid the worst-case scenario it once feared.
“It’s possible that (Abe’s) ruling coalition will survive the election pretty much unscathed,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare.
All signs indicate that the LDP is likely to dodge the kind of bullet that doomed it in July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, expecting only minor damage at worst.
An opinion poll conducted by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun Saturday through Sunday showed the percentage of voters who said they will vote for Kibo no To under proportional representation dropped by six points to 13 percent from a week before. Among voters opposed to the Abe administration, support for Kibo no To likewise slipped to 24 percent from 34 percent, eroded by the advent of ex-Democratic Party lawmaker Yukio Edano’s Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which also takes a stance against Abe.
Observers attribute Kibo no To’s fall to the growing public disenchantment with Koike’s populist tactics, which revolve around catchy wordplay and criticism of the Abe administration that she seeks to portray as opaque and beholden to vested interests.
Indeed, the party’s policy platform is peppered with a slew of eye-catching and rosy promises such as shelving the planned 2019 sales tax hike, promoting the “Yurinomics” economic policy and achieving “12 zeroes,” which include ridding Japan of nuclear power, hay fever, utility poles and rush-hour train hell.
“The party’s manifesto is unlikely to inspire great passion among independents, without whom it will be impossible for (Party of) Hope to make significant gains at the LDP’s expense,” said Tobias Harris, an analyst of Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, the political risk arm of the strategic consultancy Teneo.
“It’s entirely possible that we’ll see another low-turnout election, which will help the ruling coalition. With that mind, it’s entirely possible that the coalition’s losses could be limited to 30 or so,” Harris said, adding that his forecast is not final yet.
While odds are stacked fairly in Abe’s favor, the prime minister might lose some grip on power even if he achieves his self-imposed victory line to win at least 233 seats — a simple majority in the 465-member Lower House — together with its partner, Komeito.
The LDP held 287 seats in the Lower House when the chamber was dissolved, which, coupled with 35 seats controlled by Komeito, put the coalition’s pre-election strength at 322. This means Abe’s LDP, assuming Komeito secures the same number of seats, can mathematically afford to lose nearly 90 spots before falling below the critical, self-imposed red line.
“As long as we win a simple majority, we will maintain power,” Abe said in a debate with leaders of other political parties at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on Sunday.
But the goal is “extremely low” and “makes it sound as if Abe is taking for granted a loss of at least 50 to 60 seats,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a professor of political science at Toyo University. “The goal is so low that it puts a big question mark over his caliber as LDP president.”
His success in barely preserving a simple majority at the expense of as many as 90 seats would not result in his immediate exit, but would rather make him a lame duck in the lead-up to the LDP’s leadership election slated for next year, Kawakami said.
Yakushiji of Toyo University said even the loss of 55 seats — which would rob the LDP of its control over the 233-seat majority — would be a debacle so serious that it would raise a red flag for any LDP president. But with Abe virtually unchallenged within his own party, Yakushiji said he is not convinced that Abe would face calls for his resignation immediately under this scenario.
“By declaring his goal is to win a simple majority, Abe is sending a message to potential anti-Abe forces within his party that he won’t resign just by losing dozens of seats,” the professor said.
Koike, for her part, seems gung-ho about removing Abe from power, bending over backward to dredge up his favoritism scandals that just a matter of months ago sent his popularity plummeting to less than 30 percent. Observers interpret Koike’s scathing rhetoric against Abe as her attempt to turn public sentiment against him and therefore persuade anti-Abe voters move to her corner.
“To aim to attract support by setting up somebody as your enemy is the most populist and emptiest political strategy that accompanies no real analysis or ideology,” Yakushiji claimed, noting that Koike is trying to replicate the success she engineered in stoking voter antagonism against the LDP in July’s Tokyo election.
With Kibo no To devoid of any substantial policy and philosophy, the conservative party is virtually on the same level as the LDP, therefore failing to present voters with a real alternative, Yakushiji said.
“This is, to be frank, a nightmarish election for Japanese voters,” he said. “It’s basically a battle between the LDP and a quasi-LDP party that only amounts to infighting among conservatives. Nothing changes in Japan after the election, with no fundamental solution to problems such as its financial crisis and shrinking demography.”