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Tokyo Metropolitan Elections: What They Mean

Met Building

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — The fact that the Liberal Democratic Party avenged its defeat of four years ago and recaptured power in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly was virtually a given in light of the Abe administration’s sky-high popularity and general momentum in the first half of 2013. But there were some notable subplots that revealed truths about the opposition parties, giving us a window into what to expect in next month’s House of Councillors elections.

First, some basic facts about the results. The LDP won 59 seats in the 127-seat chamber. When the 23 seats won by ruling party ally New Komeito are factored in, the total comes to 82 seats, well above the 64-seat threshold needed for a majority.

The largest single opposition party is now the Japan Communist Party, which surprised a lot of people by landing 17 seats.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which had a pre-election strength of 43 seats, suffered another meltdown as its incumbents went down to defeat in droves. When it was all over, the DPJ maintained only 15 seats in the assembly.

Next came Your Party, which picked up a respectable seven seats and showed that they still have a cache with the floating voters.

The Japan Restoration Party’s results were as grim as suggested; they gained only two seats.

The smaller liberal-left parties like the People’s Life Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Green Wind Party were completely shut out.

Is this a foretaste of what we can expect in next month’s national elections? With revisions, yes.

The main difference is that the two parties with strong organizational power, the New Komeito Party and the Japan Communist Party, will not do quite as well in July. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections had very low voter turnout — the second-lowest ever — and so these two parties which are better than anyone else at making sure that their core voters get to the ballot box had a big advantage this time.

So no one should expect the Communists to become the largest opposition party in the House of Councillors.

But starting with the Communists, the Tokyo elections cannot but be a welcome morale boost for a venerable party that has been sliding gradually ever deeper into obscurity. Also, they appear to have captured the votes not only of their real supporters, but also a substantial number of floating voters alienated by both Abenomics and the sad state of the larger opposition parties. In other words, there may have been a lot of people who just said, “Screw it! I’ll vote for the Communists!”

The results of these elections are also a clear indication, among many others, that the DPJ under Banri Kaieda’s leadership has made up virtually no ground at all with the general public since the collapse of the Noda administration last December. Appearing recently at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, Kaieda insisted that the party’s internal reconciliation process had borne fruit and that the party lawmakers had come a long way in burying their old differences, but whether true or not, the public clearly isn’t buying it.

It’s patently obvious to everyone that the DPJ is facing yet another electoral massacre next month that will bring it close to minor party status. And mark this: Banri Kaieda will not be the leader of the DPJ two months from now.

Your Party has now clearly emerged as the more popular of the two “third pole” parties with floating voters. They must be feeling some vindication in their decision to break with their former partners, the Japan Restoration Party, over Toru Hashimoto’s series of controversial statements. They have a new lease on life.

And yet, it would probably be too much to expect Your Party to outperform either the DPJ or the JRP in next month’s elections. The DPJ has a better national organization and the JRP still has strength in its Osaka citadel. Moreover, Your Party’s total commitment to free market economics, anti-bureaucratism, and its more than a touch of populism (which its critics call demagoguery), means that while it may hope to gain a substantial slice of the electorate and, if all goes well, eventually serve as part of a future ruling coalition, this party does not seem built to ever become a majority party.

If the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections were disastrous for the DPJ, we expect they will prove fatal for the Japan Restoration Party.

Party co-leader Shintaro Ishihara served as a popular Governor of Tokyo for almost 14 years until last October. And yet, the party he heads could gain no more than two seats in the 127-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. That’s truly abysmal.

It’s perfectly clear that Ishihara has no direct successor, no effective proteges, and no political coattails. Although the man himself still commands a high degree of affection and respect, most Japanese seem to love him for his personality and his indomitable spirit, but they aren’t really interested in his policy agenda and there’s not much that he can actually transfer to anyone else. He seems to have made close to no effort in all his years in power to cultivate a younger generation that could carry his torch forward.

Although it was briefly suggested that Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto might resign as JRP co-leader if the Tokyo elections went badly, this suggestion was reversed in the days leading up to the poll. Hashimoto is expected to stay on through next month’s House of Councillors’ elections. But if those results are also disappointing (and most people expect that they will be), then Hashimoto is almost certainly out.

As we have forecast previously, we think it probable the JRP will come apart in the autumn. Perhaps Ishihara will even revive his short-lived Sunrise Party. We’ll see.

And as for the little parties of the liberal-left, the People’s Life Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Green Wind Party, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections suggest that they are either heading for outright extinction or into a deeper canyon of obscurity.

Fair or otherwise, the Japanese public is overwhelming tired of seeing Ichiro Ozawa’s face and have no interest in his current organization. Public opinion polls put the PLP support rate at somewhere between 0.1 and 0.4%. Even Ozawa’s stalwart ally Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso is starting to back away. In the July contests, six out the eight PLP House of Councillors lawmakers are facing reelection battles — Koji Sato, Tomoko Hata, Koji Hirayama, Tadashi Hirono, Yoshinobu Fujiwara, and former party leader Yuko Mori — and there’s not much hope that even a single one of them will be returned to office. If so, that would give the People’s Life Party less than ten lawmakers in both houses combined. Ozawa continues to maneuver and says some clever things, but never has it meant less than it does now. The PLP is on its way down and out.

For the venerable Social Democratic Party, it’s becoming a question of when they will lose their legal status as a political party. They have only six lawmakers now and have to defend two of those seats next month. If they lose both, they would no longer meet the official qualifications. Okinawa lawmaker Tokushin Yamauchi has decided to retire. The potential lifespan of the SDP in its current form would seem to be about three years at the maximum.

We have written recently of the Green Wind Party, which we believe has hold of a concept that does have some potential for the future of Japanese politics, but as the fact that they couldn’t even get a single candidate elected to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly amply demonstrates, they are nowhere near where they need to be in terms of party organization. They are likely to hit a setback next month that will cause them to lose their legal status as a party once again. Leader Kuniko Tanioka is among those who must face the voters at this time. We have the hunch, however, that this Green movement will prove more resilient than the Ozawa party or the SDP and that it could rise again as early as the autumn through lawmaker defections and recombinations.

In the prism of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections we believe can be seen the outlines of what to expect next month as well.