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Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, left, will not be a candidate in this month's general election, while Democratic Party chief Seiji Maehara, right, does not intend to run for prime minister.

Koike's absence muddies political waters of post-election Japan

Voters left guessing who the party's prime minister candidate will be

| Japan

TOKYO -- With Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike not seeking a lower house seat, her fledgling national party lacks a candidate in the subsequent Diet vote for the next prime minister. And depending on whom it supports, the party could hold sway over who gets the top job.

The popular governor reiterated Thursday that she will not run in the Oct. 22 general election. But her Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, is synonymous with Koike in the public imagination. Without her name on the ballot, the party will face a strategic challenge in explaining to voters whose policy they will be supporting. 

The party intends to capture a chunk of the lower house in the upcoming election, fielding candidates for at least 233 seats. Having a prime minister candidate within the party would make it easier to show voters what a Hope government would look like.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pounced on this. "Failing to identify a nominee for prime minister makes it tough for the public to understand" what the election is for, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said.

"Saying who would lead the country makes the election easier for the public to comprehend," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a television appearance Thursday.

No clear choice

Assuming Koike remains off the table, one option would be to pick another founding member of Hope to run for prime minister. Masaru Wakasa, a two-term lower house lawmaker close to the governor, could fit the bill, though he lacks cabinet experience and only recently became a leading party official.

Goshi Hosono, a onetime environment minister under the former Democratic Party of Japan and a key player in its successor Democratic Party, would bring more experience. But he may have too much baggage to represent a party that claims to be a change agent. And though some have pointed to Democratic chief Seiji Maehara, who helped arrange for many in his party to run under Hope's banner, he told Koike on Thursday that he is not interested in the job.

History shows that an unwise choice of candidate for prime minister can be dangerous for a party headed into its first election. Former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Party tapped far-right Shintaro Ishihara -- then Tokyo's governor -- to head its ticket in the 2012 lower house election. But putting a staunch conservative at the helm diluted the party's reformist image, driving a number of supporters away.

Making friends

Hope could back someone from a different party with an eye toward forming a coalition government. "Even if we can come up with 233 candidates, all of them would have to win," Hosono said during a TV appearance Wednesday. Realistically, capturing a majority would be "fairly difficult," he said.

Hope could deflect criticism of lacking a leader by cooperating with other parties to form an anti-LDP bloc. Koike noted Thursday that there was precedent: In 1994, the LDP, then in the opposition, helped make the socialist lawmaker Tomiichi Murayama prime minister, despite fundamental disagreements with his party over the constitutionality of Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

If Hope takes this route, the opposition Japan Innovation Party will be a leading partner. Japan Innovation Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba has said the group "won't rule out the possibility of teaming up to form a government." But as is the case with Hope, Japan Innovation's chief -- Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui -- was not a Diet legislator, and his co-leader Katayama Toranosuke is a member of the upper house, making a viable prime minister pick tough to come by.

Koike herself called Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, a potential pick on Sept. 25. If neither the LDP nor the Hope-Japan Innovation alliance captures a majority of the lower house, Komeito could tip the scales in either direction.

Such cooperation would not be unprecedented: Komeito teamed with Koike's local Tomin First no Kai -- the "Tokyoites First" party -- in July's Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. But Yamaguchi seems unhappy with Koike tossing out his name. "Trust runs deep" between Komeito and the LDP, which have remained partners even during periods out of power, a Komeito official said.

Divide and conquer

That leaves one other alternative for Hope: splitting the LDP in two to put Abe on the sidelines. As of Thursday, Koike's party had put forth no candidate in the home districts of Shigeru Ishiba, a contrarian LDP member close to Koike who previously served as the party's secretary-general, or Seiko Noda, the internal affairs minister. Both have been discussed as potential successors to Abe within the LDP, and some see them as viable partners for Hope, depending on how the election turns out.

Working with Abe himself is out of the question: Koike has said she "will show the country things that are impossible under the current Abe government." But working with an LDP chief other than Abe might be possible, "depending on who that is and the results of the election," Koike said.

Such a collaboration could work in terms of policy. Koike once was an LDP lawmaker, and Abe has indicated he will resign if the LDP and Komeito fail to hold their majority this month. If Ishiba or Noda became the LDP's next leader, Hope could work with that party to form a massive ruling bloc. And if the LDP fails to retain a stand-alone majority, Abe's image among his caucus would take a beating, potentially enabling Hope to form a government with disaffected members of the party.

But whether the LDP or its members would play along with this plan remains unclear. Hope appears poised to take a decidedly anti-Abe and anti-LDP tone when campaigning begins Tuesday, and both sides could take heat from voters should they team up after the fact.


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