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Populist former ally aims to rip up Japanese PM’s election plans via The Guardian

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, faces a serious challenge from an ally turned nemesis, as voters prepare to go to the polls next month in an election he has described as a verdict on his handling of the economy and North Korea.

Abe dissolved the lower house of parliament on Thursday, with polls showing a new conservative party formed by the popular governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, making ground on his ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP).

Koike’s Party of Hope, formed only a day earlier, has pledged to be a “tolerant, conservative reform party” that will challenge vested interests and respect diversity.

Koike, a former news anchor who speaks English and Arabic, has cast herself as a conservative populist, determined to take on the political old guard, since she became Tokyo’s first female governor last year.

[…]

Abe called the election – a year earlier than expected – in an attempt to exploit a weak and divided opposition and to secure a mandate for his spending plans and tough line against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programmes.

Koike, who served as defence minister during Abe’s first term as prime minister a decade ago, has said she will not run in the election but will stay on as governor to oversee preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But her decision to lead the new party, coupled with her positive media profile, could frustrate Abe’s plans by attracting conservative and undecided voters.

[…]

“Unlike in Britain with Labour, there is no opposition worthy of the name in Japan,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “The LDP is a giant among dwarves. It would take a major scandal to derail the Abe express.

“He may not retain his supermajority but given the fractured and unprepared state of Japan’s opposition parties, it’s hard to see much risk to a commanding majority.”

Abe and Koike are both business-friendly conservatives and hawkish on security, but they differ in two areas that could have a bearing on the election.

Abe and Koike are both business-friendly conservatives and hawkish on security, but they differ in two areas that could have a bearing on the election.

While Abe is committed to a sales tax rise in 2019 he says is needed to fund spending on education and nursing care for the elderly, Koike has called for a freeze on the tax.

Koike has also called for Japan to abandon nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown; Abe supports reactor restarts.

“There’s not much daylight between Koike’s party and the LDP,” said Gerry Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University. “It’s a question of who can impress the voters as more competent. It’s competence and it’s character.”

 

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