TOKYO -- For Yuriko Koike, a Tokyo governor who has turned against the party that helped advance her celebrated political career, the July 2 metropolitan assembly election is a battle she cannot afford to lose.
Koike stumped Sunday for a candidate from her party at a Tokyo train station. But instead of focusing on the race, she discussed the scandal that has ensnared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the head of the rival Liberal Democratic Party who had once given her the high-profile defense ministry post.
"They bickered at the very end of the Diet session over whether [incriminating] documents existed, whether they were in a shared file," she said, referring to alleged documents that spelled out Abe's wish to give favorable treatment to a school run by a friend.
Koike won Tokyo's gubernatorial election by a landslide nearly a year ago, and a candidate she backed won in the mayoral election in Chiyoda Ward this past February. But it could all be for naught should Tomin First no Kai, her regional party promising to put "Tokyoites First," lose the upcoming race.
At the end of the day, the 127-member assembly makes policy decisions for Tokyo. Koike needs its support to push through the ordinances and budget to advance her agenda, such as on relocating the landmark Tsukiji fish market and political reform.
Those in the central government suspect that Koike, a former defense minister, wants to eventually return to national politics and is even eyeing the prime minister's chair. Her party must win at least half the Tokyo assembly for her to advance both her immediate goals here as well as longer-term ambitions.
Koike's approval rating came to 66% in a weekend poll by Nikkei Inc. and TV Tokyo, after having dropped from 68% in April to 61% in May. With the assembly race heavily swayed by shifts in public opinion, the governor must figure out how to translate her popularity into support for Tomin First no Kai.
On May 30, Koike was met with loud cheers and applause at a gathering of assembly candidates she backs. All 200 seats were filled, with an additional 100 or so attendees standing. "I wasn't expecting this many people," a campaign official said.
But many followed Koike out when she left about 10 minutes later. Only 100 or so remained by the end of the event. Crowds at stump speeches also tend to disperse as soon as the governor stops talking, and few stick around for the candidates themselves.
"We can't have voters write in 'Koike' on the ballot," an alarmed campaign official said. "So how do we channel her overwhelming popularity into the individual candidates?"
Koike is intent on exploiting the media to boost publicity. She left the LDP on June 1, the same day Tomin First no Kai held its first rally, dominating the news cycle with her break from Japan's conservative ruling party. She has also discussed the school scandal, albeit without explicitly criticizing the prime minister himself.
Having words with friends
"That's enough," Koike told an aide giving a comparison between the current Tsukiji market and Toyosu, the relocation candidate site, at the governor's office last week. She instead told the aide to come up with an alternative.
The LDP has long pushed for a relocation to Toyosu. "We've wasted over 10 billion yen" ($89.8 million) because Koike has delayed making the final call, the party's Hakubun Shimomura said.
Simply greenlighting the relocation now would only validate Koike's critics. But if she can also find a way to keep Tsukiji operating in some fashion, she could win the support of those wanting to update the facility in its current location. She is expected to announce her decision just before the assembly election is officially called Friday.
The race is equally important to the LDP. Koike "says the party declined to decide whether she should remain in the party as governor," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga fumed at a June 4 meeting. "But that's something she should decide herself!"
"It's exactly what you'd expect from her," he continued in a sarcastic tone. "Since she became governor, it's become clear she has trouble making decisions."
The LDP holds 56 seats in the Tokyo assembly. With many of the party's national lawmakers coming out of that body, losing any would cut into its political base. The assembly and Diet members "share the same fate," an LDP member said.
The race could also impact national policy, as well as the next lower house election to be held by December 2018. "The ruthless battle that is the Tokyo assembly race has the power to transform the power dynamics of this country," a senior LDP official said.