Japan's Most Popular Politician Defects From Ruling Party

  • Tokyo’s first female governor to lead new political group
  • Sets stage for battle with Abe’s LDP in Tokyo city election

Japan’s most popular politician resigned from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party, setting the stage for a potentially damaging local election confrontation after she thrashed his candidate in the race to become Tokyo governor last year.

Yuriko Koike said Thursday that she would leave the Liberal Democratic Party to lead a political group she set up to contest the city’s assembly elections in July. “This makes it clear that it’s a fight between Tomin First and the Tokyo branch of the LDP,” she said at a party rally.

The party -- whose name translates as Tokyo Residents First -- will be counting on her star power to bolster its chances of beating the LDP in next month’s vote. Koike, 64, won a landslide victory to become the city’s first female governor last year. The results of the July poll could weigh on Abe’s prospects in the next national election, which must be held by the end of 2018.

“The result of the Tokyo assembly election will affect the next general election," said Hakubun Shimomura, who heads the Tokyo branch of Abe’s LDP. “We can’t avoid losing some of our seats, but we want to make sure we get more than Tomin First," he added. Abe’s party has 57 seats in the 127-strong Tokyo assembly.

In a policy platform announced at the rally, Koike’s party promised open government and zero tolerance for misuse of public funds. It also pledged to introduce penalties for smoking in public spaces, a policy Abe’s LDP has failed to introduce on a national basis.

Animosity Contained

Abe and Koike have taken care to keep any animosity under wraps, as the capital prepares to host the 2020 Olympic Games. But members of his party have tried to paint her as indecisive, after she insisted on reviewing ballooning Olympics costs and delayed a plan to move Tokyo’s iconic fish market to a new site, where pollution levels were found to be higher than expected.

Such criticism has done little to dent her popularity. A national poll by Fuji News Network carried out May 13-14 found Koike had an approval rating of almost 71 percent, while 56 percent of respondents said they backed Abe. Still, surveys of voting intentions have shown her nascent group lagging behind the LDP.

In a coup for Koike, Abe’s Buddhist-backed coalition partner Komeito has thrown its lot in with the governor in the Tokyo elections, while saying that wouldn’t affect its national alliance with the LDP. Koike has vowed to seek a female majority in the assembly. But the line-up of 48 candidates she introduced at the party rally on Thursday was only 35 percent female.

— With assistance by James Mayger, and Takashi Hirokawa

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