By Anthony Tokarz
On Thursday, September 28, the lower house of the Japanese Parliament dissolved one year early, in accordance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call Monday for a snap election in mid-October. According to the BBC, Abe cited the need for a renewed popular mandate to pursue economic reform and respond to emerging regional risks. The announcement coincided with tensions over North Korea and a surge in Abe’s approval ratings, despite the allegations of cronyism that have dogged him and his Liberal Democratic Party throughout the summer.
Abe’s call for an early election came several hours after Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, announced the formation of a new national party, Kibo no To (The Party of Hope). Koike previously led the Tomin First (People of Tokyo First) Party and presided over an electoral rout of Abe’s Liberal Democrats in Tokyo’s municipal assembly. The New York Times reported in early July that this election constituted a major rebuke to the Liberal Democratic government and threatened to dash Abe’s chances of becoming the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japan’s history.
Koike, who had served as Minister of Defense in the early days of the Abe administration, has expressed support for the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution and advocated for a more prominent role for the military in national politics—issues on which Abe has staked his career. As the Japan Times notes, Koike’s new party cannot make national gains unless she articulates clear and meaningful points of difference between herself and the current Prime Minister. Though her Tomin First party’s victory in Tokyo’s municipal elections demonstrates the viability of upstart populist parties at the local level, Koike cannot expect the same dynamics at the national level because many Japanese fear that a divided parliament will struggle to formulate an effective and unified response to increased North Korean militarization.
Furthermore, the anxiety over North Korean aggression can play to the Liberal Democrats’ demonstrated strengths in diplomacy and crisis management, thereby discouraging voters from installing fresh MPs with limited political experience. Koike’s vow to field newbie candidates might thus compromise her party’s electoral success. In addition, the Japanese public recognizes that no major issues lay at the heart of this election, as they might during a standard general election. This will discourage voter turnout, especially among Japan’s swing voters, whom Koike will need to make inroads into the Parliament.
Aside from geopolitical concerns, the issue of a stimulus package for education and social spending figures prominently in the campaigns. According to Bloomberg, Abe has proposed a sales tax hike that will generate 2 trillion yen ($18 billion). Koike has advocated for reduced government spending instead and raised concerns that the tax hike will hurt consumer spending and trigger a recession, as occurred in 2014. Japan’s central bank has already courted controversy with its decision to institute negative interest rates—meaning that money stored in banks will decrease over time—and failed to deliver on promises of halting the yen’s deflation and reducing consumer prices. Nonetheless, Japan’s unemployment rate remains below three percent and its economy has grown for the last six straight quarters.
The Party of Hope is unlikely to translate these political or economic factors into parliamentary gains. Its best-case scenario would see it pick up sufficient seats to enter the Liberal Democrats’ governing coalition, especially if Abe’s party loses its two-thirds majority in both houses. This would allow Koike not only to become essential for the passage of key legislation, but also to share in the accolades for Abe’s successes to strengthen her party’s hand and reputation going into future elections.