Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a crushing defeat in local Tokyo elections on Sunday, losing to the capital’s Governor Yuriko Koike’s Tokyo Citizens First party.
Koike’s novice party and its allies, including the LDP’s national-level coalition partner, the Komeito, took 79 seats in the 127-member Tokyo Metropolitan assembly, signaling trouble ahead for the premier amid tumbling support rates.
The LDP won a mere 23 seats, less than half its pre-election total and its worst-ever result in a Tokyo poll.
“I want to regain the people’s trust by unifying the party and … showing results,” Abe told reporters on Monday.
The dismal showing for the LDP was a stinging rebuke for the PM’s four-and-a-half-year old administration, although on the surface it was a referendum on popular Koike’s year in office.
“It was a severe judgment suggesting (voters) thought the Abe administration was getting slack,” Abe said. “We must accept this firmly and seriously and make every effort to return to our original aspirations of when we regained power.”
Past Tokyo elections have been bellwethers for national trends. A 2009 Tokyo poll in which the LDP won just 38 seats was followed by its defeat in a general election that year, although this time no lower house poll need be held until late 2018.
Koike, a media-savvy ex-defense minister and former LDP member, took office a year ago as the first female governor in the capital, defying the local LDP chapter to run and promising to reform governance of a megacity with a population of 13.7 million and an economy bigger than the Netherlands’.
Koike declared victory as she decorated the names of her party’s projected winners on a white board with flower-shaped ribbons in the shade of green — her signature color.
“We are certain to become the leading party” in the assembly, she said, adding that the results had exceeded her expectations. “I believe our policies from the perspective of the Tokyo residents won a mandate from voters.”
The LDP has been hit by a scandal over suspicions – denied by the premier – that Abe helped a friend’s business get favored treatment.
It has also been hurt by cabinet minister gaffes, and by a perception among many voters that Abe’s administration has grown arrogant after more than four years in power.
The huge victory for Koike’s party and its allies has sparked fresh speculation that she will take her party national, but any bid by Koike herself for the country’s top job looks unlikely until after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – if her popularity remains high and her party proves it is able to govern.
“This was less a vote for ‘Tomin First’ (Tokyo Citizens First) than a repudiation of Abe,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “It was not a grass roots firestorm.”
Abe’s support rate, which tumbled in surveys last month, slipped again to 38 percent from 41 percent in an Asahi newspaper poll conducted at the weekend. That was lower than the 42 percent who did not back his cabinet.
Abe will likely reshuffle his cabinet to try to repair his battered image, although the tactic has backfired in the past when new ministers became involved in scandals or committed gaffes.
“The good scenario for the economy and markets is that the Tokyo Assembly election result triggers a pro-reform Cabinet reshuffle, and returns focus to economic issues,” wrote Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities’ economist Robert Feldman.
“The bad scenario is the LDP becomes paralyzed, and few reform actions are taken,” he said.
The LDP’s poor result could also boost Abe’s inclination to delay yet again an unpopular rise in the national sales tax to 10 percent scheduled for 2019. A decision needs to be made around the middle of next year.
It could also affect his push to revise the pacifist Article 9 of the post-war, US-drafted constitution, a politically divisive goal that Abe said in May he wanted to achieve by 2020. “I don’t think that will go as planned,” said Atsuo Ito, an independent political analyst and author.
Abe had been considered on track for a third three-year term when his tenure as LDP president ends in September 2018, but his sliding ratings and the election loss have clouded that outlook.
“A lot can happen between now and 2018. Two months ago, it looked like he’d waltz to a third term. Now it’s uncertain,” Kingston said.
A former TV newscaster, Koike became Tokyo’s first female leader last summer and earned a reformist image after repeatedly clashing with the male-dominated city government. She portrayed the LDP-dominated assembly as a place of murky politics run by an anti-reform old boys’ club that is interfering with her agenda, including cost-cutting of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She has approval ratings of about 60 percent.
Koike, 64, had shifted parties until settling with the LDP in 2002 and since held key party and cabinet posts. She angered party seniors when she abruptly ran for Tokyo governor last year, but did not officially leave the party until last month to head her own. She keeps friendly relations with Abe, prompting speculation that she may eventually run for his job.