Closely watched Tokyo governor race may shape fate of opposition bloc

Sunday’s closely watched Tokyo gubernatorial election is likely to shape the future course of not only the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by the embattled Prime Minister Fumio Kishida but also Japan’s languishing opposition bloc.

The latest election is seen as a proxy war between national parties, as incumbent Yuriko Koike, who is seeking to secure her third four-year term with the effective support of the conservative LDP, is challenged by the main opposition-backed politician Renho.

If Renho loses the election, Kenta Izumi, leader of the biggest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, may be urged to take responsibility for the defeat, casting doubt on whether he can be reelected in the presidential race scheduled for the fall.

With the election just around the corner, Renho is reportedly being sharply pursued by Shinji Ishimaru, the former mayor of Akitakata in Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, who is expanding his campaign activities through social media.

Combined photo taken in Tokyo on the morning of June 20, 2024, shows (from R) Yuriko Koike, Shinji Ishimaru, Toshio Tamogami and Renho as they made their stump speeches on the first day of official campaigning for the Tokyo gubernatorial election next month. (Kyodo)

The fate of the second-largest opposition Japan Innovation Party, which has a strong foothold in the Kansai region centered on the commercial hub of Osaka, has also become uncertain, as it has lost momentum and its presence has waned.

The JIP, still viewed by many as a local force, opted not to field its own candidate in the gubernatorial election, despite the race providing a window of opportunity for the group to pitch itself in Tokyo and achieve its goal of becoming a “national party.”

Kishida’s LDP has come under intense scrutiny amid allegations that some of its factions, such as the biggest one formerly headed by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, neglected to report portions of their income from fundraising parties and created slush funds.

The two opposition parties have called on Kishida to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election as soon as possible, as speculation has been rife that the LDP would suffer a crushing loss, with the scandal significantly eroding the party’s confidence.

But intraparty confrontations and weakening support from the opposition camp might ultimately help the LDP maintain its majority in the more powerful lower house, whether or not Kishida remains as prime minister, political analysts say.

In addition, some point out that leading opposition parties are expected to fail to strengthen cooperation before the next general election, which would make it almost impossible to oust the LDP and its junior coalition partner the Komeito party from power.

Ahead of the lower house election, the opposition parties are set to “encounter turmoil in policy negotiations among themselves as they are inept at political maneuvering,” said Rikio Kozu, president of the JTUC Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards.

The institute is a think tank of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, known as Rengo. As the largest labor union in the country, Rengo has long been a key supporter of the CDPJ, asking the left-leaning party to topple the LDP in the upcoming snap election.

The Tokyo chapter of Rengo, however, has decided not to back Renho, saying she has received support from the Japanese Communist Party. Tomoko Yoshino, who became the first-ever female chief of Rengo in 2021, is known for her anti-communist stance.

Since Izumi assumed the leadership of the CDPJ in 2021, he has stepped up cooperation with other opposition groups, including the JCP, by consolidating their candidates for a better chance at winning single-seat districts in national elections.

In April, the CDPJ took three seats in the lower house by-elections from the LDP, with support for the ruling party plunging to its lowest levels since it returned to power in 2012. All the CDPJ candidates were backed by the JCP.

Nevertheless, a Kyodo News survey showed late last month that support for the CDPJ hovered at around 13 percent, while that for the LDP stood above 25.0 percent. Respondents with no particular party affiliation rose to around 35 percent.

Yoshiaki Kobayashi, professor emeritus of politics at Keio University, said it is “difficult to say that the outcomes of the by-elections reflected full-fledged support for the CDPJ,” given that voter turnout was the lowest on record for all three districts.

The CDPJ should “present economic and foreign policies that can gain trust” among the public, Kobayashi added, with criticism mounting that Izumi has not proposed anything that offers people hope but only lambasted the LDP, which has been in power for most of the period since 1955.

As Izumi’s political abilities have been called into question, some CDPJ lawmakers said they may attempt to replace him with party heavyweight Yoshihiko Noda in its presidential election in September, the same month the LDP is slated to hold its leadership race.

Noda served as prime minister under the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan, a predecessor of the CDPJ, for about one year until December 2012, when the LDP, then led by Abe, scored an overwhelming victory in the lower house election.

In October 2022, Noda delivered a memorial speech at parliament for Abe, who was assassinated during an election campaign event in July of that year. Noda’s address contained secret episodes between him and his immediate successor, drawing considerable attention.

Under the three-year rule of the DPJ from 2009, three veteran lawmakers — Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Noda — held the position of prime minister. A CDPJ member said, “Mr. Noda was the most sincere leader among the three. I want to see him on the stage again.”

Within the JIP, meanwhile, dissatisfaction has been swirling around its leadership, which cannot find a turning point for a counteroffensive after the party lost in the lower house by-elections earlier this year, where it fielded candidates in two districts.

In April 2023, the opposition party extended its reach by acquiring 774 local leaders and assembly members across Japan, up from 468 in early February that year, with the JIP obtaining its first-ever governor outside of Osaka Prefecture.

But the party’s influence and popularity have been overshadowed by the CDPJ, which has been grilling the LDP following the revelation of the slush fund scandal, forcing the JIP to put off fielding its own candidate in the Tokyo gubernatorial election.

“The reason for the existence of the JIP is to demonstrate a third option that is neither Koike nor Renho,” a lawmaker said, while another member said, “We should have put up a candidate and promoted the party” in the race for Japan’s capital.

In the lower house, the LDP controls over 250 seats, the CDPJ holds about 100 and the JIP has more than 40 out of a total 465.

Related coverage:

Incumbent Koike leads by small margin in Tokyo governor race: poll

FOCUS: Tokyo’s July governor election akin to Japan’s “presidential race”

FOCUS: Koike-Renho leadership contest to have ramifications far beyond Tokyo

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