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Tokyo Gov. Koike speaks to reporters after the meeting with Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara in Tokyo on Friday. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

Japan's Koike wins over more key politicians

Governors of three biggest urban centers unite against Abe

| Japan

TOKYO -- As Yuriko Koike prepares to mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, more and more key figures have thrown their support behind the Tokyo governor.

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, and Hideaki Omura, governor of the central prefecture of Aichi, are the latest to agree to join forces in the upcoming lower house election, sources said on Friday.

The Osaka governor also heads the Japan Innovation Party at national level. Koike's newly formed Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, and Matsui's JIP have acknowledged their shared reformist, conservative stance and plan to field candidates jointly to take on Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito in the vote on Oct. 22.

Koike's party has set decentralization of power at the core of its campaign promises, calling for more powers to be granted to local governments.

The group hopes cooperation among the leaders of Japan's three biggest urban centers will boost its overall presence. All three governors will hold a joint news conference on Saturday to announce a common policy platform.

The decision comes just after Koike agreed to a similar arrangement with the Democratic Party at a meeting on Friday. Maehara had proposed the de facto merger between his party and Koike's on Thursday, and both agreed to coordinate on policies and fielding candidates.

"I will narrow down the candidates as soon as possible, based on various points, such as whether our policies align," Koike told reporters after the meeting.

But she again stressed that she had no intention of taking in all members of the Democratic Party. "I have no such idea," she said. "What is important is whether we can fight with a single voice."

Koike also made it clear that she had no intention of standing down as the governor of Tokyo and competing in the election. "I will not stand," Koike said.

Maehara said that they had discussed "what needs to be done, at any rate, to achieve a change of government, from a broad perspective."

Seiji Maehara, leader of the Democratic Party, speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Friday. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

After dissolving the lower house for an October election in what is shaping up to be a one-on-one brawl with the Tokyo governor, Prime Minister Abe told reporters that this "is an election on how to secure the future of Japan and its children amid a rapidly aging society."

Koike, meanwhile, has spotlighted the need for a new Japan. "Japan will fall behind global trends unless we reset Japan and Tokyo now," she said.

One of the biggest differences between the prime minister and Koike is over the consumption tax hike planned for October 2019. Abe wants to use the new revenue to help fund free preschool education, among other things. Koike wants the tax to remain at 8%.

And while both support the idea of revising the constitution, Abe focuses on adding a reference to the Self-Defense Forces to the war-renouncing Article 9, while Koike wants to prioritize lessening the authority of the central government.

A numbers game

Data compiled by Nikkei Inc. shows that roughly 1,000 candidates will fight over 465 seats -- 10 fewer than the lower house election in December 2014. Abe's goal is for the LDP and junior partner Komeito to secure at least half, or 233.

"The goal is always for the ruling coalition to have a majority," Abe told reporters on Monday, indicating his intent to step down if he misses the threshold. He set the same goal during the last lower house race in December 2014, which the coalition won with more than two-thirds of the seats.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his office in Tokyo on Friday. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

Given that the LDP and Komeito had previously held 322 seats, many initially thought that winning 233 would be an easy target. But the political landscape has changed drastically since Koike launched her new party. "The Party of Hope is a great threat, and we hope to regain the public's support by changing what we need to change," former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said.

The opposition, however, thinks it has a real chance of wresting back power. "We need to keep in mind the number of seats we need for a change of government," Party of Hope member Masaru Wakasa said in a television appearance on Thursday.

Koike's party had 11 seats in the lower house, while the Democratic Party had 88 before the dissolution.

"We aren't approaching the election with the goal of becoming the opposition," said Koike, who noted that "this is an election to choose the next government."

Even if Abe achieves his goal, a bare majority will not be enough for the ruling coalition to reliably advance its agenda. For example, 244 seats is the minimum needed for it to control all Diet committees.

Lackluster results would throw Abe's position into question. A failure by the LDP to secure 233 seats on its own "will kick off efforts to bring Abe down," a party official said.

Initiating the process of revising the constitution will require the ruling coalition to maintain a two-thirds majority, or at least 310 seats. Should it fail, whether Abe can muster the necessary support from the opposition to keep his plans on track is unclear.


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