Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike faces a crucial test this year when her honeymoon with voters ends and she is expected to produce concrete policy results instead of just reviewing and challenging the job of her predecessors and the bureaucracy. Her political style of grabbing popular attention and support by making an enemy out of the establishment forces — in her case the Liberal Democratic Party in the metropolitan assembly — could backfire if a standoff with the assembly stymies her running of the metropolitan government.
Koike has hogged the media spotlight since the former veteran Lower House member of the LDP ran for governor last August, necessitated by the resignation of her scandal-tainted predecessor Yoichi Masuzoe, over objections of the local LDP members in the assembly, and went on to defeat the LDP-backed candidate in a landslide. She has so far maintained strong popular support by tackling issues that garnered public attention — environmental/food safety concerns over transfer of the Tsukiji wholesale market to a new site in Toyosu, and reviewing some of the venues for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics amid soaring construction costs.
Riding on her election victory, Koike put on hold the Tsukiji market’s move to the Toyosu site — where a Tokyo Gas plant formerly stood and high concentrations of toxic chemicals had been found — that was to take place in November, citing the pending completion of an underground water survey. The subsequent revelation that metropolitan government bureaucrats had defied the original, expert-based plan to build the Toyosu market on layers of clean soil to shield the facility from the effects of toxic substances — instead creating underground structures — pushed back the prospect of the relocation even further.
Koike’s scrutiny of the process — in which the construction plan was altered without any public explanations — exposed governance problems in the metropolitan bureaucracy, and several former senior officials have been punished over the fiasco. But a decision on whether the new Toyosu site will be safe enough for the relocation to move forward remains pending. Koike has said she will make a judgment by this summer. The relocation may take place next winter at the earliest, but could be delayed even further if additional environmental assessment work is judged to be needed. In the meantime, the metropolitan government needs to pay compensation to market dealers for losses caused by the delay. Whether and how consumer concern over the safety of fish and other products to be traded at Toyosu will be resolved is another question.
Koike’s proposal to change the venues of boat and volleyball events for the Olympics — to use existing facilities instead of building new ones — was eventually not adopted, although the governor is credited with making an issue of the high cost of building the event sites. The total expense for developing the sites for those two events as well as the venue for the swimming competition has been slashed by roughly ¥40 billion. Her idea to get other prefectures that will host some Olympic events to help shoulder the organizing expenses, however, has met with opposition from the governments of those prefectures.
Her popularity with voters has meanwhile kept political circles jittery. Her move to create a political “school” in October, which attracted nearly 3,000 participants from across the country, raised speculation that she plans to establish a new political party of her own. The governor herself indicated last month that she hopes to field some members of the school as candidates in the metropolitan assembly election this summer — some reportedly to face off directly against senior LDP members — although she remained mum on any plan to create a new party. Some reports suggest that she plans to field 30 to 40 candidates from among the participants in her school.
Since her election as governor, Koike has remained at odds with the local LDP caucus, the biggest force in the metropolitan assembly. Last month, the caucus expelled several members of local ward assemblies as punishment for defying a caucus leadership ban by rallying for Koike in the gubernatorial race.
A standoff with the local assembly could tie the hands of a governor, affecting implementation of the governor’s policies, including the annual budget and local ordinances. Koike’s style of fueling confrontation with the LDP-led assembly may gain her popular support but could potentially cause the wheels of her administration to grind to a stop. In Osaka, the pet project of former Mayor Toru Hashimoto — who faced a serious standoff with the LDP and other forces in the municipal assembly that united against the popular mayor — to reorganize the administration of the city and the prefecture was eventually shot down in a local referendum in 2015.
If indeed Koike proceeds to establish a political party of her own and succeeds in gaining control of the metropolitan assembly in this summer’s election, she will win greater latitude in implementing her policies. But if she fails, moves to create her own political force could deepen the rift with existing parties in the assembly. The governor would do well to carefully consider whether building her own base of power by forming of a new party should be a priority while she’s in office.
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