The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on Sunday — in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party sustained a crushing defeat while Gov. Yuriko Koike’s new party became the largest force in the assembly — marked Tokyoites’ clearest thumbs-down of the Abe administration to date as much as it was their vote of confidence in the popular governor. Abe should take his first loss in major elections since his 2012 return to the government’s helm seriously and reflect on what’s the problem with his running of the administration on the strength of the ruling coalition’s dominant grip on a Diet majority — which the outcome of Sunday’s race suggests can be just fleeting.
The assembly race was the first electoral test of Koike since her own stunning victory in the gubernatorial election last August. The governor, who maintained a robust popular support rate of more than 60 percent in media polls, led her new Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party into the campaign. The party grabbed 49 of the assembly’s 127 seats, and along with Komeito, which broke ranks with the LDP, its partner in the ruling alliance in national politics, in the metropolitan assembly and others, assembly members who support Koike now control 79 seats — well above the majority.
In a stark contrast, the LDP, which was earlier seen as competing neck and neck with Tomin First for the No. 1 position in the assembly, saw its pre-election strength of 57 seats dwindle to just 23 — far below its previous all-time low of 38 seats won in the 2009 race, held just before the party lost control of the government to the Democratic Party of Japan in the Lower House election.
It is no coincidence that the Abe administration’s popular approval ratings nose-dived — by roughly 10 percentage points — in media polls taken just before the campaign kicked off late last month for the metropolitan assembly race. That followed the railroading of the contentious conspiracy crime legislation by Abe’s ruling coalition — even terminating the Upper House committee deliberations halfway — and a series of scandals that rocked the administration, including the Kake Gakuen case in which senior administration officials allegedly cited the “prime minister’s intent” in pushing for the goverment’s deregulatory measure that benefits a school operator headed by Abe’s longtime friend. Also adding to the administration’s woes was a gaffe made by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada during the assembly election campaign when she asked voters to support an LDP candidate “on behalf of the Self-Defense Forces” — an apparent violation of the political neutrality required of public servants.
As was the case when he saw his support ratings plunge, Abe appeared contrite in the wake of the LDP’s defeat in the assembly election, saying that he must “deeply reflect on” the results of the race by “taking it seriously as a stern rebuke” from the voters. At the same time, he indicated that he will continue to press ahead with his agenda in national politics by “humbly and carefully moving forward what needs to be done.”
True, the LDP’s stunning defeat in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly race will not immediately change the political landscape at the national level. Komeito, which chose to side with the popular Koike in the assembly and saw all its candidates score wins by cooperating with the governor in the campaign, says its Diet alliance with the LDP will remain solid — though questions have been raised whether its campaign cooperation with the LDP in future national elections will be as smooth. The Democratic Party, which should be in the leading position to challenge the administration as the top opposition force, was reduced to a marginal presence in the metropolitan assembly in Sunday’s race after many of its candidates defected to Koike’s party ahead of the campaign. The dismal result in the home turf of DP chief Renho, elected from a Tokyo constituency, could raise further doubts about her leadership.
There is no guarantee, however, that Abe can maintain his clout in the ruling alliance. He secured an unrivaled grip on power in the LDP by leading the party and the coalition to four consecutive landslides in national elections since 2012. He was chosen uncontested for a second three-year term as LDP chief in 2015, and the party changed its rules so Abe can run for a third term next year — which may keep him in office through 2021. But the capital’s assembly race has often in the past served as a precursor of voting trends in Diet elections and the result of Sunday’s race breaks Abe’s winning streak in key elections. Although he does not have to hold a general election through December 2018, the impact of Sunday’s race should not be discounted.