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Yuriko Koike, Tokyo governor and head of the new Party of Hope, addresses reporters Sept. 29.

Koike holds the whip hand in Japan's fractured opposition

Biggest political upheaval in years comes at urging of organized labor


TOKYO -- As Japan's demoralized opposition attempts a dramatic realignment in hopes of unseating Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in next month's general election, it has found a reluctant ally in Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who now stands in a position to reshape the political landscape.

Koike declared war on Abe on Monday, three days before the lower house was dissolved, by launching her Party of Hope. The Abe government is "taking too long with reforms," she told reporters that day. She also slammed the prime minister over the "chummy" selection process for a veterinary school operator in a special economic zone -- one of his government's few deregulation initiatives.

The political establishment watched eagerly to see what role Koike would play in her new party. Some expected her to become a co-chair or an adviser, but she went one step further and became its leader -- the party's face in the Oct. 22 snap election.

Two veterans

Seiji Maehara, who leads the main opposition Democratic Party, had been in contact with Koike since mid-September with an eye to a possible merger. Reinstalled as party leader this month, Maehara, who held the position once before, has long advocated for redrawing Japan's political lines. He has even said he was not bound to the Democratic Party label. With his party hemorrhaging support and members, working with Koike was one of its few remaining options.

Koike and Maehara both belonged to the short-lived Japan New Party, which played a leading role in knocking the ruling Liberal Democratic Party out of power in 1993 for the first time in decades. But the Tokyo governor initially saw little benefit to joining hands with the unpopular Democrats.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, or Rengo, the country's largest labor organization and the Democrats' main support base, helped bridge the gap. Rengo asked the Democratic Party on Tuesday whether it could arrange a meeting with Koike.

"Unless opposition parties that share principles and policy positions fight as one, they don't stand a chance against Abe," Rengo President Rikio Kozu said.

Some Democratic Party members were more interested in coordinating campaigns with the Japanese Communist Party, which is said to command roughly 20,000 votes in each constituency. But the more conservative Maehara strongly opposed this idea, as did Kozu. The Rengo chief supports Maehara's goal of creating a political force that provides an alternative to both the LDP and the Communists.

Maehara informed Kozu on Tuesday about the possible merger with the Party of Hope. They then met with Koike later that day, where they agreed to work together toward taking control of the government.

The go-between

Rengo serves as an umbrella for some 6.8 million trade union members across Japan. Candidates with its support can count on mobilized votes as well as help with putting up flyers and other campaign legwork -- an inviting proposition for Koike's Party of Hope, which has no local organization outside Tokyo.

"If the Democratic Party with its regional branches, Rengo, and the popular Ms. Koike work together and use their strengths, we can take down the Abe government," a Rengo official said.

Maehara told naysayers in his party that this was the last chance for the opposition to realign, and declared he would be the last leader of the Democratic Party. But it remains to be seen whether the drama unfolds according to his script.

Democratic Party chief Seiji Maehara, left and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speak to the press after a meeting Sept. 29.

On Friday morning, Koike and Maehara shared a firm handshake after agreeing to start ironing out their campaign platform and a list of candidates. But the governor later told reporters that she had "no intention" of taking in every single Democrat.

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party opposes any change to the constitution. Agreement on constitutional reform and national security are "prerequisites" for absorbing Democrats, a person affiliated with Koike's party said.

Maehara and Koike also hold different views on a planned consumption tax hike -- the governor favors waiting until the economy is stronger -- and other issues, and may have trouble crafting a shared platform.

Meanwhile, a visibly shaken LDP-led ruling coalition finds itself suddenly on the defensive. When Abe decided to call a snap election, he had apparently not considered the possibility of Koike's new party or its merger with the Democratic Party. 

"What on earth is going to happen?" Abe wondered out loud Tuesday, according to a source close to the prime minister. Abe aides have slammed the recent political developments as theatrics and populism.

While Koike says she has no plans to run in for the lower house, many in the ruling coalition remain nervous. Abe, Koike and Maehara have all put their political futures on the line with this election. Whether Maehara's gamble of putting electoral expediency ahead of political principles succeeds will likely depend to a large extent on Japan's vast ranks of unaffiliated voters.

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