Japan is going to the polls on 22 October, with the conservative coalition led by Shinzo Abe facing a stiff challenge from a new party led by the right-wing governor of Tokyo.
I once found myself standing next to NSW Premier Neville Wran at a function. We got into conversation and drifted away from the crowd. Sensing an opportunity, I asked him what attracted him to politics. Wran gestured towards the city of Sydney spread out beneath our high-rise view. ‘Power,’ he replied succinctly.
I see the same steely glint in the eye of Yuriko Koike, Tokyo’s female governor, who has seized the opportunity of a snap election on 22 October to make her much-anticipated return to the national stage.
Japanese politics is as barren of ideas today as ever, as starkly defined by the naked contest for power as ever. Shinzo Abe, in office for five years, is a politician running injured who thought his best hope of winning another term was in catching his opponents napping. He miscalculated.
Twelve months ago, the prime minister was riding high, with approval ratings of 60% plus. Then came two major scandals involving corrupt approval processes for educational facilities run by friends of Abe or his wife. Bureaucrats had bent the rules seemingly to oblige the prime minister, although no evidence of a direct instruction has so far come to light. His public support plunged to the 20% range – until Kim Jong-un’s missiles helped him climb back to more respectable figures recently. He’s hoping the electorate is sufficiently spooked by the ‘crisis’ of North Korean belligerency to stick with the ruling coalition.
Which brings us to the 65-year-old Koike. While still a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (resignation in the mail), she defied head office last year by running against and defeating the LDP’s candidate for Tokyo governor. She then led a revolt in the city assembly that resulted in the LDP losing its majority there. Many observers saw signs of an untrammelled ambition for more power.
Before entering politics, Koike worked in the news media and so knows how to perform in front of a camera. Ideologically, she is at least as right-wing as Abe, but applies a deeper layer of powder cake to her image. Having outmanoeuvred the LDP once, she anticipated Abe’s dash to the polls and immediately announced the formation of a new political grouping, the Party of Hope (the name having been quietly registered six months ago), to contest the lower house election.
In early opinion surveys, the Party of Hope is attracting strong support, ensuring that it will become the second biggest party in the Diet after the LDP, replacing the ailing Democratic Party that governed Japan from 2009 to 2012.
The Democrats’ leader Seiji Maehara (a former foreign minister), foreseeing a likely wipe-out in the election, took the extraordinary step of declaring that he would run as an independent and, in the hope of saving their jobs, told his MPs they could stand as candidates for Koike’s Party of Hope.
Her reaction was a master class in the projection of power. ‘Thank you very much, but I’ll choose my own candidates,’ Koike declared, making it clear that she would not accept members from the liberal arm of the Democratic Party. Only politicians who supported moves to legitimize a fully-fledged Japanese military were acceptable to her. (The LDP’s election manifesto, just released, also calls for a constitutional amendment to give formal recognition to the Self-Defense Forces––while failing to mention the war-renouncing Article 9.)
There is no case in living memory of a national election campaign being run from the office of Tokyo governor. This fuelled speculation that Koike would quit her position to run for the Diet, until she reportedly ruled this out. It makes sense for her to bide her time. Since the Party of Hope has only until 10 October to select and nominate candidates, it will probably contest little more than half the lower house seats, making it virtually impossible to topple the LDP this time around. But if the party is able to deny the LDP-Komeito coalition an outright majority, it will mark the beginning of the end of Abe and herald a new political era.
One possibility is that Koike could execute a reverse takeover of the LDP, her old party, by merging forces to create a ‘grand’ party of the right. In such an eventuality, the depleted centre-left opposition in the Diet would be drowned out by the nationalistic rhetoric of ‘hope’ and ‘crisis’.
Regardless of whether Koike gets everything she wants this time Abe’s star seems to be on the wane. Grappling for power takes it out of you; there comes the day when a hungrier competitor appears stalking the prize. If the knockout blow is not delivered this month, Koike is still likely to weaken him sufficiently to be credited with his eventual fall from power within a year.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.