Tokyo election, populist leader could shift Japan politics

An election for Tokyo's metropolitan assembly on Sunday is attracting more attention than usual because it could shift the political landscape in Japan. A big win for a new political party created by populist Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike could strengthen her base and foreshadow an eventual run for prime minister.



A former TV newscaster-turned-politician, Koike served in key Cabinet and ruling party posts, including defense minister, before becoming the first female leader of Japan's capital in July 2016. Stylish and media savvy, she is a populist whose policies can sway depending on public opinion, experts say. Once called a migratory bird for her repeated party-hopping before settling with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2002, she launched a new party in May for Sunday's election: "Tomin (Tokyoites) First." She has put her nationalistic and hawkish stances on defense on the back burner.



A reformist image and challenge to the male-dominated Tokyo city government have won her an approval rating of around 60 percent. The assembly has long been dominated by the Tokyo branch of the LDP, and Koike has portrayed it as the anti-reform politics of the old boys. She has pushed administrative reforms, reviewed costly venues for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to reduce city spending, suspended a divisive relocation of the Tsukiji fish market over safety concerns and halved her salary. "It's a typical populist approach. She is challenging the establishment and stressing she is on the side of Tokyo residents," said University of Tokyo politics professor Yu Uchiyama.



Media polls show Koike's Tomin party slightly ahead of the LDP in the race for the 127-seat assembly. Some experts predict victory for most of the 50 Tomin candidates even though most are unknowns. Hakubun Shimomura, a senior LDP lawmaker in charge of the party's Tokyo branch, has said he expects a setback. The ruling party's popularity has been hit by scandals and gaffes at the national level, and for railroading a contentious anti-conspiracy law through parliament.

The result of the Tokyo assembly election usually sets the tone for the subsequent national election, experts say. Koike has struck an alliance with the Komei party that could allow them to gain a majority. It's politically interesting, because Komei is a longtime LDP partner at both the local and national levels. Koike, despite her row with the LDP's Tokyo branch, has maintained friendly ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, prompting speculation she may eventually return to national politics.



Koike ranked third in a Nikkei newspaper survey in March about who should be prime minister, trailing current leader Abe and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's son, Shinjiro. So far, Koike has brushed off speculation about a return to national politics, saying her focus is on Tokyo and its future.

The University of Tokyo's Uchiyama says Koike would have to broaden her party vision to something like "Japan First" to aim for parliament. Jeff Kingston, coordinator of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan Campus, says Koike has a high support rating but hasn't achieved much. "I would say her popularity is as high as it goes, and there are a lot more risks of the downside from here onward," he said. "It's too soon to declare her as the likely successor of Abe."


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