Commentary / Japan

Koike versus Abe in the populist politics stakes

The Tokyo governor may be bold, but she's no Emmanuel Macron

by Takamitsu Sawa

In the July 2016 Tokyo gubernatorial election, Yuriko Koike, who entered the race without support from any of the political establishments, scored an overwhelming victory, soundly defeating Hiroya Masuda, backed by the ruling coaltion of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, and Shuntaro Torigoe, endorsed by opposition forces such as the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.

Koike’s margin of victory was far bigger than anticipated — she garnered 44.5 percent of the votes, compared with Masuda’s 27.4 percent and Torigoe’s 20.6 percent. Of the votes cast for Masuda, about 45 percent came from people constituting a solid voting block for Komeito, while a little over 50 percent of the votes for Torigoe were cast by JCP supporters. It is presumed that Koike won votes from a majority of people who normally vote for the LDP and most of the unaffiliated swing voters.

In the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race last month, the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party headed by Koike won 55 of the 127 seats, followed by Komeito with 23, the LDP with 23, the JCP with 19 and the Democrats with five. Behind the LDP’s crushing defeat was popular anger against what was perceived as insincere responses by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party in Diet deliberations, which had led to a plunge in the approval ratings of the Abe administration. Equally miserable was the dismal performance of the DP, which, in my view, was the outcome of the party having lost its pride as a liberal political group.

Having scored one victory at the polls after another, the high-flying Koike seems to be trying to compare herself to Emmanuel Macron, who won the French presidential election in May at the age of 39. It has even been rumored that Koike proudly calls herself “Macron of Japan.” What do Macron and Koike have in common? First, they both gave up on established political parties, entered their races without a solid support base and captured a sweeping victory. Second, Macron and Koike led their fledgling new political forces to victory in the French National Assembly and the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, respectively, by roundly defeating the established parties. But the similarities between the two end here, as I believe these two politicians have nothing in common.

Macron’s career has been one of a typical elite, as he studied at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Science Po) and at the National School of Administration before landing a job at the Ministry for the Economy and Finance. After spending a few years as an investment banker, he served President Francois Hollande from 2012 to 2016, first as the deputy secretary general for two years and then as the minister of economy, industry and digital affairs for as many years.

Macron had joined the Socialist Party in 2006, but has been independent since 2009. With an eye on running in the 2017 presidential race, he resigned from his Cabinet post and founded his own new political movement called “En Marche!” He successfully ran for president with the endorsement of this party, which claims to be neither rightist nor leftist, but rather a reformist centralist.

The political scene in the French Fifth Republic has long been characterized by a competition between the center-right Republican Party, which is conservative, and the center-left Socialist Party, which follows social democracy. Macron’s centralism may be regarded as resembling the Third Way pursued by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But it may also have a stronger touch of market fundamentalism than the Third Way did.

In short, Macron has abandoned as “relics of the past” the traditional political system in which two major parties vie with one another for the choice between conservatism and liberalism (or social democracy). He has also foreseen a new political “structure” in the advanced nations of the West in which the competition will be between rightist populism and leftist populism. It was on that basis that he launched “En Marche!” as a pureblooded centrist party.

Koike, on the other hand, has gone no further than denouncing what she called the old-fashioned Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, whose members, she said, are dedicated to protecting vested interests. That is why many are puzzled as to what her political position really is. Formerly a newscaster, Koike served in the Diet for the past 25 years, with her affiliation shifting from the Japan New Party to Shinshinto, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and the LDP. This is sufficient proof that she is a pragmatist who has nothing to do with political ideologies.

For several years before and after 2010, it appeared as though the Japan’s political landscape would enter into an age of competition between two major parties — the conservative LDP and the liberal Democratic Party of Japan — just like in the United States and in Western Europe.

In theory, the LDP is supposed to be a conservative political party. In reality, however, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi were the only two among past LDP prime ministers who implemented policies worthy of being called conservative. At least as far as economic policies are concerned, conservatives side with market fundamentalism. Nakasone succeeded in privatizing the state-run Japanese National Railways, the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corp. and the Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp., while Koizumi privatized the three postal services of mail delivery, savings and insurance. Together, the two cleared the way for a “small government.”

In contrast, Abe believes in state capitalism, whose ideas are far removed from conservatism. A quick glance at the LDP’s draft proposal for amending the Constitution clearly indicates the party’s nationalistic position of prioritizing public interests and order over individualism, freedom of speech and basic human rights. Such a posture is well reflected in the recent enactment of the state secrets law and the conspiracy crime legislation.

The Abe administration urges Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) to raise company employees’ wages — a matter that is supposed to be determined through labor-management negotiations — saying that wage hikes are essential to kick in the “virtuous cycle” of Abenomics. The government playing such a role is supposed to be unthinkable in a market economy. That is only one of the examples of Abe pursuing a state-led economic policies.

On the other hand, Abe has come up with one seemingly liberal policy agenda after another — ranging from “promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens” to calling for the “equal work, equal pay” principle, eliminating the problem of workers having to quit their jobs to care for ailing relatives, pushing up legal minimum wages, and advocating free higher education. This is nothing other than the manifestation of the populist inclinations of the Abe administration. Just like U.S. President Donald Trump has set “jobs” as the core of his populism, Abe has centered his own populism on busting deflation, pushing the yen lower and driving share prices higher.

Until very recently, the Abe administration appeared to hold a rock-solid hold on power — as its right-leaning populism appealed to the public while the opposition leader, the Democratic Party, was mired in an identity crisis. Although Abe’s bid to bust long-term deflation through the massive monetary stimulus program is still only halfway through, a large portion of the masses benefited from the stock market boom and the weaker yen.

The prime minister’s practice of populist politics — including his anti-pluralism that rejects divergent views, his pragmatism that prioritizes reality over ideologies, his nationalism that gives the state an absolute priority over individuals, and his anti-elitism — also won popular endorsement as a result.

In other words, Abe has been successful in building the foundation for a long-serving stable administration by anticipating the collapse of the two-party system and the rise of populist politics — both of which have been foreseen by Macron.

Even if a new political party created by Koike advances into national politics, its political position could be nothing other than one of right-leaning populism. It is inconceivable that this party — which would be unable to distinguish itself from the LDP under the Abe administration — could become a major player in national politics.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.

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