It was no ordinary sub-national election in Japan this past Sunday, 2 July because the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly controls a budget of about $70 billion that is larger than the budgets of the majority of countries in the world, with Tokyo being the capital and most populous city of nearly 14 million people. The humiliating defeat for the nationally ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has set off finger-pointing on who all are to blame for this second defeat. The LDP, which fielded 60 candidates and had 57 members in the former assembly, won only 23 seats. The first defeat came last year when Ms Yuriko Koike, a former environment and defence minister of Japan and known to be close to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and LDP secretary general Toshihiro Nikai, was denied the LDP ticket to run for Tokyo Governor by the adamant local unit of the LDP. So, she formed her own grouping and won a stunning victory to become the directly-elected Governor (political chief executive of the Prefecture equivalent to Indian Chief Minister) of Tokyo, and the first woman Governor in Tokyo’s history. The Governor of Tokyo traditionally has national prominence and now has international significance because Tokyo is host to the 2020 Olympics, and is a world financial centre.
Yuriko Koike speaks English and Arabic and has warm personal skills under a steely but friendly external demeanour. Koike grew up in the upscale Ashiya suburb of the port city of Kobe. Her grandfather founded a trading company in Seattle, US, and her father, Yujiro, who himself had political ambitions, managed a trading company dealing in oil and often travelled to Arab countries on business. Koike went to study in Cairo, Egypt in the 1970s, securing a degree in Arabic and Sociology in 1976, her family farsightedly encouraging her seeing the need for global understanding many decades ago. Koike moved to politics after a career as a TV news anchor and broadcaster.
Over the past quarter century, Koike has represented two separate parties in parliament before joining the LDP in 2002 and was its member till June 2017.
No one really expected Koike to revolt against the LDP, until she sensed that she was being deliberately denied by the local Tokyo LDP party unit. Thereafter, there was no holding back. After consolidating her position as Tokyo Governor by pointing to multiple cost-overruns in the Olympics preparations under the previous administration, and vowing to bring transparency and openness to government, she also highlighted how the famed Tokyo Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world, was to move to a polluted location. She provided evidence that the cleanup had been insufficient.
Another major development with potential national significance was that the Komeito party, which is currently a central government ally with the LDP, instead partnered with Governor Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party. While the Tomin First party won 49 out of 50 seats it contested, the Komeitowon all 23 seats that it contested, and other smaller allies won the remaining seven seats to give the alliance a total of 79, a clear majority in the 127seat Assembly.
Generally regarded as astute, resolute and hard-working, Prime Minister Abe has become among the longest-serving Prime Ministers of Japan. National elections are not due until December 2018, unless called early for strategic reasons. However, recent alleged influence-peddling scandals, gaffes by a minister, and the usual political donation scandal affecting a local party boss, are cited as causes for dampening enthusiasm for the ruling LDP. However, is that all there is to the thumping defeat? In any event, the election results are acknowledged as a defeat for the Tokyo unit of the LDP and not really a referendum on the popularity of Prime Minister Abe or indeed the LDP nationwide.
The “main” opposition party, the Democratic Party or DP, continues its self-destructive path, from the time it was elected nationally with a great majority and much hope, but rapidly declined and disintegrated soon thereafter amid infighting. In the Tokyo election, the DP only won five seats. But it does have within its ranks impressive figures like the Columbia University-educated Motohisa Furukawa, a former economy minister. Where would they go should the DP disintegrate even further?
Is an opposition realignment on the cards? Would such enlarged opposition be led by Governor Koike? Or might Koike just return to the ruling fold should the opportunity be such? Chances are for a re-amalgamation of numerous opposition parties under the leadership of Yuriko Koike that may well make for a fascinating contest in the national elections once the 2020 Olympics are out of the way. At the moment, as is customary in Japanese politics, Governor Koike has had to state that she has no national ambitions and is fully focused on the governance of Tokyo, and she even resigned from the leadership of her own political party.
Dr Sunil Chacko, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities, has been an Adjunct Professor in the US, Canada, India and Japan.