Battered Abe Looks to Fend Off Party Defector in Tokyo Election

  • Polls show Governor Koike’s insurgents may defeat Abe’s LDP
  • LDP’s 2009 loss in Tokyo preceded landslide Japan-wide defeat

Shinzo Abe

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A Tokyo election this weekend gives Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a chance to stop the bleeding from a series of recent scandals that hurt his popularity.

Polls indicate that his Liberal Democratic Party risks losing its position as the largest party in the capital’s assembly on Sunday to a group led by Governor Yuriko Koike, who resigned from the LDP this month. One survey published Wednesday saw her Tomin First (Tokyo Residents First) party and affiliated groups gaining a majority.

Failure to fend off Koike in Tokyo threatens to weaken Abe’s standing against potential rivals within the LDP who are seeking to end his run as Japan’s third-longest serving premier since World War II. It also may hurt the party’s chances in a national election due next year: In 2009, a big loss for the LDP in Tokyo preceded a landslide general election defeat months later.

Abe will be blamed if the LDP loses in Tokyo, said Harumi Arima, an independent political analyst who has written books on the behind-the-scenes power struggles in Japanese politics. The city has 13.7 million people and accounts for about a fifth of Japan’s $4.4 trillion economy.

“It will raise questions as to whether he should go,” Arima said. “Until now there was no alternative. If Koike is seen as an alternative and manages to get enough candidates in the national arena, things might get pretty tough for Mr. Abe.”

Support for Koike’s Tomin First was 26 percent, compared with 23 percent for the LDP, in a survey of 1,500 Tokyo residents conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper June 23-25. Perhaps even more worrying for Abe, support for his cabinet fell nine percentage points to 39 percent in the same survey -- a steep decline in a daily seen as supportive of his government.

The LDP is the biggest party in the assembly with 56 of the 127 seats, while Tomin First has only five. Koike’s party is running 50 of its own candidates, and has formed a local alliance with the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, which has 22. A Jiji Press survey published Wednesday had the Tomin-Komeito partnership winning at least 64. It didn’t give a number for the LDP.

Abe, 62, has seen his popularity suffer due to ministerial gaffes and allegations of cronyism over government support given to a school run by one of his close friends. More popular colleagues such as Shinjiro Koizumi, the 36-year-old son of a former premier, have taken a prominent role in the Tokyo campaign.

In a speech in Tokyo on Wednesday, Abe apologized for the angry exchanges over scandals that dominated the last parliamentary session, and vowed to fight on. “A castle that takes three years to build can be destroyed in a day,” he said.

Koike, 64, is a former television journalist fluent in English and Arabic who has served as environment minister and defense minister, as well as a ruling party executive. A big win would give her momentum to take her more populist message onto the national stage.

Fish Market

She has campaigned on a platform of open government, cutting wasteful spending and a pledge to bring more women into the assembly. The LDP has sought to portray her as indecisive for delaying the relocation of the iconic Tsukiji fish market over pollution concerns and insisting on reviewing the ballooning cost of the 2020 Olympics.

In the 2009 Tokyo poll, the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito lost their dominant position in the assembly -- months before a resounding defeat to the Democratic Party of Japan in a general election that led to more than three years in opposition. This time, however, Abe doesn’t have to call a vote until December 2018, a few months after the LDP is due for a formal leadership election.

Hakubun Shimomura, who heads the Tokyo chapter of the LDP, told reporters this month that the vote in Tokyo would likely have wider implications.

"If we look at past Tokyo assembly elections, they have without fail affected subsequent national elections," he said.

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