Less than 6 months since her sweeping victory in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, Yuriko Koike has not only cemented her popularity with the capital’s residents with her uncompromising approach to revealing corruption and graft in some of the city’s biggest and most expensive public projects; she has also positioned herself as a powerful figure in national politics. Though her role is a regional one, Koike has moved rapidly to make alliances—and enmities—that lay the groundwork for her to consolidate her power in Tokyo and perhaps, ultimately, to secure a leadership role on the national stage.
The unusual thing about what Koike is doing is that it involves going head to head against the Liberal Democratic Party, effectively positioning herself as the official opposition in Tokyo despite being, herself, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. To understand how this makes sense, a little bit of LDP history is required.
It’s a peculiarity of Japan’s political system that for most of the past 70 years, the most effective opposition to the LDP has been the LDP itself. From 1955 until 1993, the party won every election, leading some political scientists to describe Japan not as a two-party system, but a 1.5 party system, with the hapless Socialists never truly posing an effective electoral threat. Competition, instead, came from the LDP’s internal structure in which a number of factions, representing different interest groups and policy preferences, both competed and cooperated, making up a “party system within a party.” Large, multimember electoral districts allowed voters to support a preferred faction, not just the LDP as a whole; at its best, this enabled political reform and transitions of power without ever actually changing the party in charge.
Since the electoral system was changed in 1994 and removed the large multimember districts, the LDP’s internal factions have been in terminal decline. Unable to compete directly against one another in elections, they have been stripped of their core functions— the selection of electoral candidates and the raising and allocation of campaign funds. The factions still exist (Prime Minister Abe, for example, remains a member of the Hosoda Faction), but the lip service paid to them by the party leadership has waned; even cabinet appointments, which were once carefully allocated such as to reflect the strength of internal factions, now largely ignore this consideration.
The decline of the factions has been on the cards for more than 20 years, but the sheer inertia behind this system means that many politicians and commentators still haven’t grasped the implications of its end. The factional structure was how power balances were maintained; the factions and their interactions were the game that ambitious politicians had to play, and factional politics was how challenges to leadership were either carried out or quashed. Without the powerful factions, it’s not entirely clear how internal competition in the LDP can work. Some players are still trying, unsuccessfully, to stick to the rules of the old game; Shigeru Ishiba attempted to gather steam for a challenge to Prime Minister Abe by declining a more senior cabinet role and creating his own faction, the Suigetsukai, but succeeded only in isolating himself and, worse, making himself look disloyal.
What Koike is doing in Tokyo, then, is an attempt by a very skilled political operator to create internal opposition—and to build a power base—without relying on factions or risking being seen as disloyal to the leadership. Since her election, Koike has carried out an increasingly aggressive battle against the Tokyo LDP, but has maintained cordial, constructive relations with the national party. Her moves in Tokyo are nothing short of outright political rebellion; she formed a private political school and used it to pick the best aspiring candidates for a political group, Tomin First (Tokyo Citizens First), which will directly compete with the LDP for seats in the Tokyo assembly on July 2nd. At least 40 seats in the 127-member assembly will be contested by Tomin First; more may yet be announced.
Meanwhile, Koike has also been firming up alliances elsewhere. Three former Your Party assemblymen have joined Tomin First, becoming its first representatives in the assembly. Both Komeito (which has 23 seats in the assembly) and the Democratic Party (which has 18) have agreed to cooperate and support Tomin First candidates in the election; her relationship with Komeito, which was formerly the LDP’s coalition partner in Tokyo (as it remains in the national Diet), is especially strong. Given Koike’s personal popularity, the odds of her party being able to put together a solid governing majority in the assembly come July look very strong.
In the process, though, she’s likely going to deliver the LDP one of its most stinging electoral defeats since 2009—and all while remaining an LDP member. It’s not entirely unusual for the national LDP to stay out of local internal disputes (the party declined to endorse either candidate in last year’s Fukuoka District 6 by-election, in which rival local LDP factions both ran candidates) but to do so in the Tokyo assembly remains a dramatic step. Bluntly, the national LDP doesn’t want to throw its weight behind the local party because it’s not sure it can win an electoral battle against the charismatic governor who took office last August after standing as a rogue independent candidate—and thrashing the official LDP candidate in the election.
Some well-established LDP assembly members have strong local support networks and may be tough targets for Koike’s Tomin First “assassins,” but many others are vulnerable. One measure of Koike’s electoral prowess in the capital will come this weekend, when residents of Chiyoda Ward go to the polls to elect a mayor. They face a choice between the Koike-backed incumbent, Masami Ishikawa, and an LDP-backed candidate, Makoto Yosano. Ishikawa is expected to win, but the margin of his victory will be telling with regard to July’s poll, and with some observers even predicting that Yosano may be forced into third place by independent candidate Asao Igarashi.
If that happens, the LDP’s fate in July will look all but sealed—and Koike’s subsequent electoral and administrative dominance of Tokyo will make her one of the LDP’s most powerful, effective, and high-profile politicians. After that, who would bet against her taking a leadership role when she chooses to return to the Diet?
Rob Fahey is a PhD researcher at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @