Abe kicks off poll battle
Koike’s party steals the limelight
TOKYO, Sept 28, (Agencies): Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved parliament Thursday, effectively kicking off a national election campaign where he faces an unexpected and formidable challenge from the popular governor of Tokyo.
Members of the lower house raised their arms and shouted “Banzai” three times — the Japanese equivalent of “three cheers” — after the speaker read out a letter officially dissolving the chamber.
Voters in the world’s third-biggest economy will go to the polls on Oct 22, as Abe seeks a fresh popular mandate for his hardline stance on North Korea and a new tax plan.
“A difficult battle starts today,” Abe told reporters, shaking his fist.
“This is an election about how to protect the lives of people,” said the premier. “We have to cooperate with the international community as we face the threat from North Korea.”
Abe asked for public support for his “strong diplomacy” on Kim Jong-Un’s regime, which has threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea and fired missiles over its northern Hokkaido island twice in the space of a month.
“We need to fight for our children’s future.”
Abe stunned Japan on Monday with a surprise call for a snap election, seeking to capitalise on a weak opposition and a boost in the polls, as voters welcome his hawkish policy toward Pyongyang.
But Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has upended Japanese politics in recent days, stealing Abe’s limelight with her newly launched “Party of Hope” that seeks to shake up the country’s lethargic political landscape.
Koike’s new party, formally unveiled Wednesday, has attracted an influx of lawmakers from a wide range of ideological backgrounds and has succeeded in unifying opposition to Abe, presenting Japanese voters with a credible alternative to the premier.
Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party later Thursday decided not to run candidates in the election, effectively joining forces with Koike’s juggernaut.
For the moment, although Koike is leading the party, she is not running for a seat in parliament, preferring to concentrate on governing the world’s most populous city in the run-up to the 2020 Olympic Games.
“I’ll focus my energy on Tokyo. Leading Tokyo will be a plus to the whole of Japan,” Koike told reporters.
But pundits say the charismatic former TV presenter, 65, could yet go all-in on her high-stakes gamble if she thought she could deflect criticism for ditching her current job after only a year.
“The party may gain some seats in the Tokyo area, but a risk for her is that voters may feel betrayed as they voted for her as Tokyo governor and now she is working in national politics,” Kensuke Takayasu, professor of political science at Seikei University, told AFP.
A survey by the Mainichi newspaper showed 18 percent of voters plan to vote for Koike’s party, compared to 29 percent for Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
An Asahi newspaper poll showed 13 percent planned to vote for her party, versus 32 percent for the LDP.
Both surveys asked voters their preference for proportional representation districts where ballots are cast for parties, rather than candidates.
“Voters in many countries have shown they are willing to take a risk, even a severe risk, in terms of what will actually happen because they are disappointed with the status quo,” said Martin Schulz, a researcher at Fujitsu Research Institute. But Schulz, who drew a comparison to French President Emmanuel Macron’s meteoric rise, added that Koike’s platform might not be so appealing, given its similarities to LDP policies. Abe’s personal ratings have risen to about 50 percent from about 30 percent in July, partly on the back of his leadership during the current North Korea crisis.