Japan’s Election Becomes a Battle of the Brands

  • Differences on tax and nuclear power may not be set in stone
  • Koike’s candidates mostly recruited from existing opposition

Japan PM Abe Calls Vote a 'Test of Confidence'

Innovative, or irresponsible? Dependable, or stuck-in-the-mud? With the two main parties fighting Japan’s general election on similar policy platforms, voters may be swayed by their marketing campaigns.

Just two issues clearly divide Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, 65, and her upstart Party of Hope from 63-year-old Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party: nuclear power and the sales tax.

In other areas, what Koike calls her "reformist conservative" party sounds much like the LDP, from which she resigned just months ago. She backs Abe’s handling of North Korea, wants to discuss changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution and says party members must back laws that Abe passed to expand the role of the military.

Read about why Abe is gambling on an early election

With just over two weeks until polling day, Koike’s party looks unlikely to win. Her new group trails the LDP in surveys of voting intentions, and for now she is not fielding enough candidates to potentially secure a majority. The question is whether she can damage Abe enough for his own party to oust him as leader, with his term due to end in September.

"The differences are small, and it’s not clear whether they are set in stone," said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of politics at Nihon University in Tokyo. "It’s a very difficult election for voters to make a choice based on policy. It’s more about whether they want Abe to stay on."

Abe had until recently been seen as a steady hand on the tiller, with the economy marking six straight quarters of growth and unemployment at less than three percent. But accusations of arrogance emerged after almost five years in office and a series of cronyism scandals earlier this year.

Former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba said in a speech at the weekend that Koike was trying to achieve the same thing as the LDP by different means, according to the Asahi newspaper.

Even Koike’s talk of diversity bears a striking similarity to Abe’s rhetoric on providing opportunities for women, the elderly and the disabled. Eighteen percent of the 192 candidates her party has unveiled are women, compared with 7.5 percent of the LDP’s 292.

The sales tax is one issue that could potentially sway voters. In his party’s manifesto, Abe pledged to use revenue from hiking the rate to 10 percent in 2019 to boost education and provide help for people such as caregivers. But Abe has flip flopped on the tax in the past. Koike’s party has called for a freeze at 8 percent, with member Takatane Kiuchi saying last week an increase should be shelved as real wages are on a downward trend.

Koike has said she’ll seek to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s, while Abe’s LDP is pushing for atomic energy to make up 22 percent of Japan’s electricity supply by that date.

Striding Past

That leaves marketing as an important factor in the election. Koike got off to a strong start last month with a campaign video showing her striding away from two old-school politicians berating her for trying to shake things up. "Should we just put up with things, or get together to try to change them?" reads the text, adding that Koike offered "politics without constraints."

But she tarnished her image as a fresh political force by cooperating with the Democratic Party -- then the main opposition grouping -- to more than double the number of candidates she can field. A rump of left-leaning Democrats are forming another new party that could split the anti-Abe vote.

Abe has fought back by focusing on diplomacy, an area in which Koike has relatively little experience despite a brief stint as defense minister.

"We will defend this country to the end," reads the slogan on the LDP election pamphlet. It shows Abe shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, emphasizing his view that strengthening the alliance will bolster Japan’s deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

‘Irresponsible’

While Abe has avoided direct criticism of Koike, his party is seeking to portray her as unreliable for launching a parliamentary opposition group even as she said she won’t run as a candidate.

"She has fallen into a dilemma of irresponsibility," LDP lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi said in a speech Sunday in Tokyo. "It’s irresponsible if she runs and irresponsible if she doesn’t."

Twelve percent of respondents in a survey published by the Asahi on Thursday said they planned to vote for Koike’s party, compared with 35 percent for the LDP and seven percent for the new Constitutional Democrats.

Success for Koike could mean winning enough votes to prompt the LDP to ditch Abe and approach her to form a coalition, according to Nihon University’s Iwai. Koike has rejected the idea of cooperation with Abe but didn’t rule out working with the LDP under a different leader, the Asahi reported.

"If she had been planning to take over the administration, to become prime minister, she would be running. But it’s almost certain she won’t," Iwai said. "She may join forces with the LDP under someone other than Abe. It all depends how many seats the LDP lose."

— With assistance by Takashi Hirokawa

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