A landslide triumph for incumbent Yuriko Koike in the Tokyo gubernatorial election Sunday offered valuable lessons for those involved in national politics eyeing the prospect of a snap Lower House poll.
Ever since the ordinary Diet session closed in mid-June as scheduled, speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is contemplating a snap election has intensified in Nagatacho, the nation’s political hub.
Ruling party lawmakers have appeared to be split about calling a vote, concerned about potential blowback over such a move against the backdrop of an once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and sliding ratings in opinion polls.
But the outcome of the Tokyo election, held on the day the nation’s capital reported over 100 new COVID-19 cases, could tip the scales in favor of a fall snap election, taking advantage of a fragmented opposition and the strong endorsement received by Koike, who essentially drew Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito support.
The LDP may also be tempted to call for an election early to shut down the possibility of Koike making a comeback to the national arena. Although the ruling party essentially supported Koike, who once left it, the shrewd career politician’s victory could cause headaches for the party and complicate the political outlook for Abe. That could be in the cards if she were to chip away seats from it by either forming a new political party, as she did before, or rejoining the LDP by stepping down as governor.
By capturing more than 3.6 million votes, the second-highest number of votes cast for a winning candidate in Tokyo, Koike flaunted her strength — even though coronavirus numbers had begun to tick upwards after restrictive measures were relaxed.
“I'm very grateful for the strong backing by Tokyoites. At the same time, I’m mindful of the heavy responsibility of being a second term (governor),” Koike said, dismissing speculation about her ambition to re-enter national politics.
She had advantages in the race before voters headed to the polls. Appearing in front of the camera essentially every day, she kept the metropolis up to date on the prevalence of coronavirus infections, searing into the consciousness of 13 million Tokyoites that hers was the public face of the city and that as a local leader she was not afraid of occasional clashes with the central government.
Opposition candidates were in disarray ahead of the gubernatorial election as well. The difference between vote numbers she received and those cast for second- and third-place rival candidates — Kenji Utsunomiya, who earned about 844,000 votes, and Taro Yamamoto, who received about 657,000 — was so overwhelming she still would've had a comfortable lead had the two been combined.
Before Sunday, analysts had predicted that votes would be split between Utsunomiya, backed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, and Yamamoto, leader of anti-establishment party Reiwa Shinsengumi. But the outcome, as well as the fact that about 30 percent of CDP supporters voted for Koike, underscored that the weakness in opposition parties was more critical than analysts had foreseen.
Those same divisions on display in the Tokyo election are mirrored in national politics.
The CDP and the Democratic Party for the People attempted to merge before the beginning of the Diet session in January, but that effort failed. The two largest opposition parties have explored ways to consolidate, but their disagreements over fundamental policy, such as nuclear energy and even the new party’s name, have so far stymied progress.
“The LDP will win a snap election if the opposition parties fail to coordinate their candidate nominations,” said Ko Maeda, associate professor of Japanese politics at the University of North Texas. “This Tokyo gubernatorial election clearly demonstrated that the opposition parties have trouble in working together. This may make the next election (happen) sooner.”
Maeda added, though, that the national vote would take place in a completely different context from the Tokyo gubernatorial election. Koike's crushing victory was attributed more to Koike herself than from implicit support for her by the ruling national parties, he said.
One of Abe’s strengths has been winning elections to consolidate the power. Before his term expires in September 2021, he may wish to solidify support in pursuit of his long-held goal of amending the Constitution, as well as pave the way for either his fourth term or his favorite pick — LDP’s policy research council chairman Fumio Kishida — to be the next prime minister.
Abe himself has been mum on the prospect of calling a snap election.
Within the ruling coalition, lawmakers are torn over holding a House of Representatives election this year. The LDP’s Diet affairs chief, Hiroshi Moriyama, said an election “could happen this year,” and late last month Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso told Tetsuo Saito, secretary-general of the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, it was “preferable” to have the vote this year.
Saito, however, dismissed the suggestion, apparently worried about blowback from constituents who might perceive lawmakers to be prioritizing politics over responding to the novel coronavirus.
“As (incidence of cases) is slowly expanding, politics should work toward both preventing the infection from spreading and keeping the economy on the move,” Saito said at a news conference on July 3. “I don’t think creating a big void in politics would gain the understanding of the people.”
Besides, Abe is not in good standing with the public. Major public opinion polls have shown Abe Cabinet’s approval ratings to be in their 30s, reflecting frustration toward the government over its coronavirus responses and recent scandals.
It's territory from which entering an election would be precarious for a sitting prime minister. Depending on the outcome, Abe may be pressured from within the LDP to abandon any aspirations to run for a fourth term.
As much as the odds are in favor of the ruling parties winning a snap election, holding it early could debilitate Abe, Maeda said. Unless he wins by landslide he will become a lame duck, since there will be an expectation that no more elections will be fought under him.
Considering Abe’s current situation, beaten by low approval ratings, the upcoming election is likely to focus more on preserving current seats rather than seeking to capture more, Maeda explained, by exploiting an unorganized opposition and shutting Koike out. The LDP currently holds 284 of 465 seats in the Lower House. The term of lawmakers in the House of Representatives is up in October 2021, which does not leave Abe much time to spare.
“So he has a reason to be careful,” Maeda added.
Still, there are incumbent candidates who maintain that the status quo is favored in times of a national crisis, as was shown in Tokyo as well as in the Kumamoto gubernatorial elections that went ahead in March amid the pandemic.
This is positive news for the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition if it wishes to hold a national election early. The ruling parties are also closely monitoring whether an incumbent Kagoshima governor, endorsed by them, will win a gubernatorial election Sunday, which would further reinforce the pattern.
Nonetheless, future moves by Koike remain a worrisome factor for the coalition. Although she denies any interest in returning to national politics, she has a history of attempting to do so.
While serving her first term as Tokyo governor, Koike founded the now defunct conservative Kibo no To (Party of Hope) ahead of the 2017 general election. At that time, as now, Abe's Cabinet approval ratings had sagged to around the 30s. Koike dared to challenge his LDP head on.
The LDP won easily, taking advantage of opposition votes that were split because of Koike’s new party. Taking responsibility for the disastrous result, she quit as party leader.
LDP lawmakers fear Koike may make a second attempt to establish herself on the national stage, using her popularity as Tokyo's leader as a tail wind. Such an ambition is a threat to the LDP — a party she once knew from the inside and with which she now has a complicated relationship.
“The sooner the election is, the more difficult for Koike to quit her position and make a jump into national politics,” Maeda said. “This factor may also make the next election (happen) sooner.”
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