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Political observers bristled and buzzed earlier this month when Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) — a regional party founded in 2017 by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike — created a national party, First no Kai, to field candidates in the Lower House election on Oct. 31.

The buzz fizzled out when First no Kai announced Friday it would not run in the upcoming poll, saying that it would instead focus its efforts on the next national election.

For Koike, whose unspoken desire to become prime minister is one of the worst-kept secrets in Japanese politics, the formation of a new party on the eve of a pivotal election had seemed like the perfect path back to the national stage.

But the governor, who serves as a special adviser to Tomin First, said she played no role in the decision to form First no Kai — and even before Friday’s announcement she said she had no intention of running in the Lower House election.

That contradicts Chiharu Araki, leader of Tomin First and now First no Kai, who said in early October that Koike played a significant role in deciding to form a national party, going as far as to say the governor helped decide the name.

Without a strong flag-bearer, however, and with little time to recruit candidates or create a winning policy platform from scratch, First no Kai was never expected to win many parliamentary seats on Oct. 31. And ultimately, now, it won’t even participate.

That begs the question: Why create a national party and why do it now?

Speculation aside, the fuss surrounding First no Kai dates back to 2017, when Koike formed a national party — Kibo no To (Party of Hope) — days before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a snap election. Of the 235 candidates Kibo no To fielded, 50 won seats — a result far short of expectations due in large part, critics said, because Koike chose not to run herself.

Tomin First leader Chiharu Araki announces the launch of a new national party, First no Kai, in Tokyo on Oct. 3. | KYODO
Tomin First leader Chiharu Araki announces the launch of a new national party, First no Kai, in Tokyo on Oct. 3. | KYODO

Kibo no To sought and failed to supplant the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party, but First no Kai — a self-proclaimed “conservative centrist” party — took a different approach by aiming to claim the narrow space between Japan’s ruling and opposition parties with a platform that embraces a combination of conservative and progressive agendas.

“We’ve often been frustrated that the voices of Tokyo residents do not reach the national political stage,” Araki said in early October after announcing the launch of the party.

On Monday, First no Kai published on its website a number of policy initiatives, including constitutional reform, less dependence on nuclear power, the pursuit of a carbon neutral society and gender equality. They also vowed to strengthen border restrictions and virus countermeasures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Constitutional reform makes (First no Kai) more palatable to right-wing voters, and carbon neutral and gender equality makes them more attractive to the center left,” said Kenneth McElwain, a professor in comparative politics at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, prior to the party’s announcement Friday that it won’t field candidates in this election.

But attempting to appeal to a wide range of voters isn’t without risk: In a future election, First no Kai could gain supporters on both sides, or none from either.

“In the end, voters do care about what they perceive as policy competence,” McElwain said, adding that, while the new party hit “a lot of parties where it hurts,” the plan is likely to fail unless Koike runs for office.

Chiharu Araki, leader of Tomin First, looks on as Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announce her bid for re-election in June 2020 during the runup to the gubernatorial election. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Chiharu Araki, leader of Tomin First, looks on as Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announce her bid for re-election in June 2020 during the runup to the gubernatorial election. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Koike, 69, has achieved near-celebrity status, having spent nearly three decades climbing the political ladder — holding posts such as environment minister and defense minister along the way — to become the household name she is today.

Koike was initially elected governor of Tokyo in 2016 as an independent candidate. In 2020, she was re-elected in a landslide victory — reaffirming her strong grip on the capital — with support from the LDP and Komeito, which together form the ruling coalition in the Diet.

Fumio Kishida, who replaced Yoshihide Suga as prime minister earlier this month, is already struggling to attract public support. A number of polls have shown his approval ratings hovering close to 50%, which is particularly low for a new prime minister but still higher than Suga’s outgoing figures.

The creation of First no Kai demonstrates the growing weakness of the LDP, according to Yasushi Aoyama, a professor at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance Studies who served as vice governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2003.

“The LDP has been gradually losing the support of small-business owners and farmers for over two decades, so there’s a real thirst for a new party that can answer the needs of disenchanted voters,” Aoyama said earlier this week. “First no Kai is targeting those people, but it doesn’t have the policies to do it successfully.”

First no Kai was hit hard by the tight electoral schedule. Before Kishida announced earlier this month he would dissolve the Lower House and hold the election on Oct. 31, with the official campaign period to kick off Tuesday, the vote was expected to be held later, possibly on Nov. 7.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike heads into a meeting room in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building Thursday ahead of a weekly coronavirus monitoring meeting. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike heads into a meeting room in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building Thursday ahead of a weekly coronavirus monitoring meeting. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

First no Kai had been recruiting candidates via a public call for applications.

Going forward, it’s clear that Koike’s support will be key to the group’s success.

Her support and physical presence during Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections in July earlier this year helped Tomin First prevent the LDP from gaining more seats.

Koike’s sudden, late intervention in the race — after being admitted to a hospital due to severe fatigue — prompted speculation that she might use the victory as a springboard back into national politics. Following the assembly election in the capital, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan tweeted that the upcoming general election was Koike’s last chance to become prime minister. Toshihiro Nikai, then the LDP’s secretary-general, even said he would welcome Koike back into the party.

Time and again, Koike has denied any speculation or suggestion that she’s aiming to become the country’s leader.

However, Aoyama believes the governor had planned to run for office in the upcoming election but backtracked after Kishida moved the timeline forward.

Though Aoyama is uncertain, he said it’s possible Koike has her sights set on the Upper House election slated for next summer.

“If Koike didn’t intend to run for office, (Tomin First) wouldn’t have started a new party,” he said. “That they would run in a national election without Koike’s full support is unthinkable.”

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