Japan: An Emerging Threat to the Ruling Party

4 MINS READJul 3, 2017 | 21:03 GMT

The long-awaited Tokyo municipal elections held July 2 delivered an unprecedented local defeat of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by emerging political player the Tokyo Residents First party. The election boosted the Tokyo Residents First's presence in the Tokyo assembly from 6 seats to 49. Now, with only 23 seats in the local assembly, the ruling party has even fewer than the 38 lawmakers it had following a similar defeat in August 2009. That defeat presaged the LDP's earthshaking 2009-2012 loss of national power. Though the municipal loss is certainly a blow to the LDP and to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the ruling party has a great deal of leeway in managing this crisis.

The Tokyo Residents First party was established in September 2016 to support former LDP defense minister and current Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. Koike resigned from the LDP on June 1 and assumed leadership of her new party. Although Koike's party is still a local player focused largely on local issues, the platform of the Tokyo assembly gives it a prominence that it could later broker for national power. In the short-term, the defeat is a thorn in the side of the LDP. But it is troubling for the LDP that Koike managed to secure the local backing of Komeito, a party aligned with the LDP at the national level that won 23 seats in the July 2 election. Komeito has served as a stalwart ally to the LDP in national legislation but may now have more leeway to dissent when such support threatens its popularity.

LDP's defeat comes at a particularly critical juncture for the prime minister, who is pursuing his ambitious reform agenda on the back of several wins in the most recent National Diet session, including the removal of LDP term limits allowing Abe to stay on as prime minister; several legislative wins; and the Self-Defense Forces' first-time exercise of powers granted in 2015. Abe also unveiled an ambitious plan in March to reform Japan's longstanding constitution by 2020, with a particular focus on regularizing the Japanese military. However, all of these victories mean expending massive political capital, and the Tokyo defeat suggests such capital could be finite.

The loss was not wholly unexpected. But in a sign of how seriously the LDP is taking it, the party called an emergency meeting July 3. Abe's approval ratings had fallen to 44 percent in recent weeks, largely because of a national scandal surrounding the approval of the construction of the Kake Gakuen Veterinary School and because of the LDP's decision to ram through a controversial anti-conspiracy law at the tail end of the Diet session. Abe's last-minute July 1 stumping in Tokyo did not manage to sway voters.

But Abe has numerous arrows still in his quiver to manage the threat Koike's party represents. Lower House terms do not expire until December 2018, and Abe can hold off calling snap elections until closer to that deadline. The leadership contest for the LDP, too, is not set until late 2018. In the meantime, Abe can focus on quashing the veterinary school scandal and has the option to reshuffle his Cabinet. A reshuffle in August or September could sideline internal LDP rival Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and uproot two unpopular ministers.

If Koike eventually mounts a more national challenge, she will have difficulty against the LDP's overwhelming dominance in national politics and institutions. It is her status as an LDP outsider that is both her greatest advantage and her greatest weakness. The Tokyo Residents First party is centered on Koike herself, which is a potential liability given that she has not proven immune to criticism, as demonstrated by the back and forth over the relocation of an iconic fish market that reduced her approval rating from 74 to 59 percent. The nascent party will continue to challenge the LDP, but that challenge may not be insurmountable as the ruling party moves forward with its own agenda.

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