Shinzo Abe

‘It’s bad news for Abe’: Japan’s reformed, realigned opposition could yet create headaches for prime minister in snap election

The main opposition Democratic Party approved a proposal to effectively disband and merge with Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s new ‘Party of Hope’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 10:42pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved his country’s lower house of parliament on Thursday for an October 22 general election, in a bid to maintain his hold on power. But a reorganisation of opposition parties under the leadership of popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike may complicate matters.

Abe dissolved the chamber as soon as it convened at noon for an extraordinary session, telling reporters later on Thursday he did so “having decided that we must obtain the public’s support and understanding to overcome the national crises of a declining birth rate and the threat from North Korea”.

But the timing of the election, campaigning for which will start on October 10, suggests the premier’s real goal is to give the opposition as little time as possible to mount a united challenge to the ruling coalition he has led for nearly five years.

In a sign Abe seeks to maintain rather than expand his hold on power, he said on Monday that the coalition of his Liberal Democratic Party and the smaller Komeito Party will only aim to secure a simple majority – at least 233 seats – following reforms that will shrink the chamber to a post-war low of 465 seats.

We want to make [Party of Hope] bigger and achieve a change of power in this lower house election
Seiji Maehara, Democratic Party

The ruling coalition currently holds 320 seats in the lower house, including the one occupied by the speaker.

Shortly after the dissolution of the House of Representatives, the main opposition Democratic Party approved a proposal by its leader Seiji Maehara to effectively disband and merge with the “Party of Hope” established this week.

“I hope you all understand the decision to choose substance over appearance,” Maehara told a meeting of party lawmakers. “We want to make Kibo no To [Party of Hope] bigger and achieve a change of power in this lower house election.”

Koike, formerly an LDP lawmaker, will lead the party from outside the Diet. She reiterated on Thursday she has no intention of quitting her current job to run for a lower house seat.

The Democratic Party will stand no candidates, either in electoral districts or the proportional representation system.

Instead, its members who want to run with Koike’s party – subject to her approval – will be able to do so while still having access to the Democratic Party’s political funding and regional support networks.

The Democratic Party had already been losing lawmakers, with some being founding members of newly formed party. Koike and those founding lawmakers promised Wednesday to “unshackle” Japanese politics from vested interests through “reform conservatism”.

On its own, the party was planning to put up about 100 candidates nationwide, too few to bring about a change of government even if it performs well. But adding candidates from the Democratic Party is likely to improve the new party’s fortunes.

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s Japan Campus in Tokyo, called Koike’s new party a game changer.

“I think it is really bad news for Abe,” he said. “She doesn’t actually have to win, but she has to inflict a bloody nose on Abe ... If her party does better than expected, expect the long knives to come out in the LDP, and Abe could be ushered to the exit.”

Koike’s strongest card may end up being a perception that she is a more trustworthy individual than Abe, suggested Hitoshi Komiya, an associate professor of Japanese contemporary history at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

“Abe’s air of unreliability – the reason behind the dip in [Cabinet] approval ratings earlier this year – hasn’t changed, and the recent rebound in approval is due not to regained trust but to fear prompted by North Korean ballistic missiles flying over Japan,” Komiya said.

If her party does better than expected, expect the long knives to come out ... and Abe could be ushered to the exit
Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University

The question, then, is whether Koike’s party can take its message to all regions of Japan and how well it can woo swing voters.

“It’s possible that the new party will be able to create a presence for itself by providing an outlet for the moderates – the ‘we just don’t like Abe’ camp,” said Masahiro Iwasaki, a political science professor at Nihon University.

“But there is also the scenario that the party could fail if it comes off as too haphazardly cobbled together, untrustworthy and full of unknown quantities.

To distinguish itself from the LDP, with which it shares basic conservative principles, Koike’s new party will propose postponing the consumption tax hike from 8 to 10 per cent planned for October 2019.

“A consumption tax hike will only cool down consumption,” Koike told a press conference on Thursday, proposing instead to make better use of state-owned assets to rebuild the country’s finances.

Koike also said her party will “consider what process would be necessary to have zero nuclear power plants by 2030”. The Abe administration wants to bring the country’s reactors back online while claiming it will “reduce dependence” on nuclear power.

Explaining on Monday his decision to call a general election, Abe said a vote was needed to secure a fresh mandate for his decision to change the way the government will use additional tax revenue from a consumption tax increase, and for more “strong diplomacy” on North Korea.

Abe was no doubt aware that the longer he left the election – which legally could be held no later than December next year – the more candidates would likely be fielded nationwide by Koike’s emerging party.

With a shake-up of Japan’s political landscape in sight, Abe appears to have put the brakes for now on his pet goal of overseeing the first ever amendment of the Japanese Constitution, refraining from raising the topic this week in the lead-up to the dissolution.

Koike’s new party is also in favour of debating a constitutional amendment but puts less emphasis than the LDP on the importance of altering the document’s war-renouncing Article 9.

To formally propose an amendment to the Constitution, which has remained unchanged since coming into force in 1947, lawmakers in favour of the change must secure a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet.

Additional reporting by Associated Press