WASHINGTON – On Sunday, Tokyo elected its first female governor. Yuriko Koike, the former defense minister who also served as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s special adviser on national security when he was first in office from 2006 to 2007, scored a landslide victory, winning by more than 1 million votes. She took over the office from Yoichi Masuzoe, who resigned in mid-June over a spending scandal.
When Koike first announced her intention to run, it sparked discord within the Liberal Democratic Party, which is the largest force in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Wary of endorsing another “celebrity” candidate who could be forced to resign over financial or other personal scandal, at the time of her announcement the LDP leadership had already been exploring several former bureaucrats as candidates.
When Koike indicated that she would run regardless of whether the LDP endorsed her or not, it triggered a strong negative reaction from the party’s rank and file, including Nobuteru Ishihara, son of former Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and the chairman of the LDP Tokyo chapter, who went so far as to say “she will no longer be considered a member of LDP from this day forward.”
To be fair, Koike never enjoyed party-wide support in the LDP. Her frequent changes of party affiliation — she first ran for office as a candidate from the Japan New Party in 1992, then changed her affiliation to Shinshinto, the Liberal Party and New Conservative Party before joining the LDP in 2002 — make some people call her “political migrant bird” (“seikai wataridori“).
Even after entering the LDP, she has switched her allegiance among different party seniors, including Abe. In other words, if you are a fellow Diet member who needs a loyal political ally, you are unlikely to find one in Koike. Some, particularly those who are longtime LDP members, also have been critical of her in the past for being only interested in basking in the spotlight. Finally, many ask about her ability to govern, which is largely untested.
Despite such misgivings, how did she win?
First and foremost, what unfolded during the campaign last month was a clear demonstration of the public’s frustration with the current political stagnation in Japan. Koike ran as an independent, promising Tokyo residents that she would make the management of the metropolitan government more transparent. She also appealed to the voters who, with the string of former governors who had faced criticism for misconduct (including nepotism and misuse of official funds for personal use), believe the capital needs a governor that would put residents’ needs first.
On the other hand, the LDP endorsed Hiroya Masuda, a former governor of Iwate Prefecture, as the party’s official candidate. Masuda ran on his experience as a governor and was considered to have a leg up vis-a-vis Koike because he, as the official LDP candidate, had the backing of Komeito, the LDP’s local assembly members and the votes of various professional organizations. This gave voters in Tokyo, a large number of whom are unaffiliated, the perception that the “old boys club” (the LDP who backed Masuda) were trying to push the newcomer (Koike) out because she refused to play by their rules.
In addition, the opposition parties fumbled. The Democratic Party struggled to build a coalition to endorse a single candidate. When the opposition parties finally decided to back Shuntaro Torigoe, a well-known television news anchor, as their unified candidate, he turned out to be a very ineffective candidate.
He ran on a platform of anti-constitutional revision and anti-nuclear power, but those issues had very little resonance with Tokyo voters, who were much more concerned about issues such as employment, the lack of child care facilities in the capital, and above all, responsible management of the metropolitan government. Torigoe offered neither the image of change that Koike carried nor the experience of Masuda.
Finally, newsmagazine allegations of inappropriate behavior with women during his time as a TV anchor put him on the defensive to explain his past behavior.
In other words, the Democratic Party utterly failed to offer a credible alternative candidate who could seriously challenge Koike and Masuda, which in turn contributed to Koike’s landslide victory. Following the big loss in the Upper House election in July, the Tokyo gubernatorial election became one more failure by the Democratic Party to offer a viable alternative to the LDP (after all, although Koike ran as an independent, she is still technically a LDP member).
On her first day as governor, Koike articulated her determination to “put the citizens of Tokyo first” and push for reform in the way the metropolitan government and metropolitan assembly conduct their business. However, many challenges await Koike’s attention. To implement her agenda, Koike will have to work with the assembly, where the LDP, which she alienated in this election, holds the majority along with its ally Komeito.
The LDP leadership, including Abe, will watch her performance as governor closely. Her four-year term will run until just before Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Despite strong resentment against her for breaking away from the party in this election, the LDP leadership will now be forced to work with her to ensure success in hosting the Olympics. The fact that the LDP leadership is unlikely to strip her of her party membership is a telltale sign that, faced with an election in which voters in Tokyo rejected the officially endorsed candidate by a wide margin, they are trying to come to terms with the reality that they will have to work with her.
For Koike, running for governor was a high-risk decision: Had she lost, her political career would have been essentially over as long as she stayed in the LDP. Now that she won what could have been the biggest political gamble in her career, she will have to show that she is worthy of the confidence of Tokyo voters.
Yuki Tatsumi is a senior associate of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington and a nonresident senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. © 2016, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency