Has populism has found its way to Tokyo? Not really. PM Shinzo Abe’s LDP, which has ruled Japan at a national level for decades) bar a few periods was smashed in the Tokyo Municipal Assembly elections yesterday. Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike had split from the LDP to form the Tomin First (Tokyo-ites First) Party. She won 49 seats (out of 50 contested) from 6 held before the election in the 127 seat Municipal Assembly. The LDP went from 57 to 23, 15 less that its worst ever showing to date. Even the Communist Party gained seats at the expense of the LDP.
Koike’s popularity (despite sliding from 74% to 59% over the dithering around Tsukiji Fish Market redevelopment) has been driven by the idea of ‘transparency’ in government policy decision making, a clamp down on wasteful spending and accountable government.
Abe’s LDP on the other hand has been embroiled in scandal after scandal and citizens of the capitol were not prepared to be taken for mugs (although only 33% showed up to vote). Whether it be the out-of-control screaming of recently resigned LDP member Mayuko Toyoda to her staffer, the favouritism shown in the Kake Gakuen scandal to PM Abe’s long term friend, the sale of government land at a 90% discount to set up a nationalist school (Moritomo Gakuen) or even the PM being booed on the campaign trail, voters let the LDP know that they’re sick of old school establishment politics. A national election is still some 18 months off.
The bigger issue being debated is whether Koike’s party could make serious inroads into the LDP at a national level putting Abenomics and ultra loose monetary policy on the back burner. The LDP’s national junior coalition party (Komeito) had backed Koike’s Tomin First since last year after the LDP balked at salary cuts for Tokyo Municipal Assembly politicians.
Abe tried to hose down the talks of the rise of Tomin First arguing they were like the Japan New Party which floundered after success in the 1993 Tokyo Municipal Assembly elections. They promised much but ended up disbanding despite Koike being 2IC.
Abe will no doubt crank up public spending in the regional areas to support prefectures with rapidly aging populations. What many overlook is that Japan is still backed by an aging society. Despite all the wishes of the youth for reform, the elderly will continue to grow as a % of the voter base as the population decreases. This means policy will need to be serving the silver-haired.
Abe can’t dismiss these dreadful results out of hand. The citizens of Tokyo are livid at the LDP’s antics. Yet a 33% (+2%) turnout suggests voter apathy is still alive and kicking. Abe isn’t going to be finished by this but the party needs a long hard look at itself. The voters are suitably upset. Is this a wave of populism a la Trump or Brexit? Not really. Japan continues to suffer from lacking a credible opposition which means inexperienced parties often fail in their first term. Every now and again the LDP gets sent a warning shot before business as usual returns.