1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is Shinzo Abe's sun setting?

Julian Ryall Tokyo
July 4, 2017

Japan's ruling party faced a stunning defeat in Tokyo municipal elections held over the weekend, while Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike's new outfit triumphed, setting the stage for her elevation into national politics.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's campaign posters is seen from atop of a campaign van with anti-Abe protestor during election campaign for Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/R. A. de Guzman

Governor Yuriko Koike's party scored an impressive victory over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Sunday's municipal elections in the capital Tokyo, prompting some commentators to suggest that the scale of her win might mark the beginning of the end for Abe's administration.  

Others have claimed that it might mark the emergence of a genuine opposition to the LDP's hold over Japan's political arena and that her resounding win might be sufficient for Koike to make her mark on national politics.

It has even been whispered that she could become the nation's first female prime minister, although analysts point out that Sunday's result is only one electoral success and that 64-year-old Koike will need to prove herself on a consistent basis if she does indeed have ambitions for higher office.

Koike's party "Tomin First No Kai," which roughly translates as "The Tokyo Residents First Association," took 79 of the 127 seats in the municipal assembly, with Abe's LDP securing a mere 23 seats - its worst ever showing in the capital and down from 57 seats before the vote.

'Arrogance' and 'laxity'

Even the staunchly pro-LDP Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper criticized the party's showing, suggesting the "historic defeat" was the result of "arrogance" and "laxity" compounded by a number of scandals that are overshadowing the national government and Abe personally.

Japan Tokyo Regional-Wahlen Yuriko Koike
Analysts say 6Yuriko Koike will need to prove herself on a consistent basis if she does indeed have ambitions for higher officeImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Nogi

The prime minister has been hit hard by allegations that he interfered in decisions by bureaucrats involving two educational institutions. Despite denials, a drip-drip of accusations and leaked documents has meant that Abe has been unable to escape suspicion that he was involved in applying pressure.

Some of the government's recent legislation has also been unpopular, including a bill that outlaws conspiracy to commit a crime, while there is also strong opposition to Abe's plans to rewrite the constitution.

And the prime minister has not been helped by questionable behavior by some members of his party.

Toshinao Nakagawa, a former vice minister of trade, resigned in April following revelations he was having an extra-marital affair. Now a backbencher, his reputation took another hit recently when a tabloid printed photos of him in a compromising position in a Tokyo S&M bar.

In June, Mayuko Toyota, considered a rising star in the party, was forced to step down after being recorded kicking her male secretary, mocking his thinning hair and allegedly threatening to crush his head with a lead pipe.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, too, did not help the party by calling on members of the Self-Defense Forces to vote for the LDP in the Tokyo elections. Inada - an unapologetic nationalist who has been criticized for speaking out of turn in the past - said the request came from the military, the defense ministry and the LDP.

Demands that the minister step down were quickly dismissed by the government, although Inada's track record of saying the wrong thing means that she may not survive Abe's next cabinet reshuffle.

'Humility and contrition'

"The fact that Abe quickly came out on television and tried to convey a sense of humility and contrition for the defeat tells us a lot about just how seriously he is taking it," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

"This result renders Abe a diminished leader, he has lost his aura of invincibility and he looks vulnerable," he told DW.

The "backlash" seems to have been aimed at some of the prime minister's less popular policy positions, including his desire to rewrite the constitution, and suggest that he would now lose a referendum on that issue.

"What people want him to focus on is what he promised them when he was first elected nearly five years ago," said Kingston. "His 'Abenomics' economic initiatives are sputtering, incomes are down, wages are stagnant and people are not seeing the improvements that they were promised. And that means they no longer believe Abe's endless promises," he added.

"This result was amazingly bad for the LDP and must have been beyond Abe's worst nightmare, but he is helped by the fact that the opposition parties are in disarray and he has no clear rival within his own party.

"I believe he can ride this crisis out, but I also believe we have reached 'peak Abe' and he will never again be able to scale the heights of his previous popularity," Kingston underlined.

So does that open the door for Koike - a former member of the LDP - to build on her victory in Tokyo and to take her campaign onto the national stage?

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, believes that Sunday's election result was a classic mid-term protest vote and that Koike will struggle to build on the win.

"Under the LDP, the national economy is on a good trajectory, business confidence is increasing, employment is up, relations with the US are good and Japan's reputation in the region, with the exception of China, is solid," he said.

"By virtually all measures, the LDP has pushed the country in a better direction and I do not think the electorate, when they are faced with a decision on a national level, will throw that away for Koike," he said.

Identifying the problems

"Up until now, Koike has been very good at identifying the problems in Tokyo - the mess over the transfer of the fish market from Tsukiji to a new site at Toyosu, corruption linked to the Toyosu project, shortages of kindergarten places and so on - but now that she has a mandate in the chamber she may very well find it hard to provide solutions to all those problems," he said.

Another issue that she faces is that her political party is completely focused on Tokyo and its residents; expanding that movement to a national scale - and competing against an entrenched LDP in many parts of the country - is likely to prove impossible, Nagy argued.

And while it is not inconceivable that Abe might resign should his public approval ratings continue to decline and he recognizes that he has no chance of pushing through reforms to the constitution, his position will most certainly be assumed by an experienced politician who is already a household name and - most importantly - has the powerful machinery of the LDP behind his name.

Kingston agrees.

"If she is smart, she will concentrate on the job in hand and, if she does well in the coming years and impresses the public, then maybe there is a chance to take that onto a bigger stage, but my feeling is that we have also seen 'peak Koike'," he said.

"It is not easy to be a political maverick and to take a local movement to the national level, although we can never say it's impossible," he stressed. "And Koike is certainly ambitious enough. We shall just have to see how she fares with a new mandate in Tokyo."


Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A visitor to the 2022 Reunification Day celebrations in Erfurt wearing a knitted hat in the colors of the German flag
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage