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Tokyo governor comes out swinging as Abe caught flat-footed

Yuriko Koike sets up new party as LDP alternative, eyeing snap election

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced a new national political party Monday.

TOKYO -- Popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's decision to stake out ground opposite the ruling party ahead of next month's lower house election has come as an unpleasant surprise to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hoped to find common ground with an ideological ally.

Drawing from both sides

After Monday's announcement of her new national party -- Kibo no To, or "Party of Hope" -- Koike met with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who gave Koike her cabinet debut in 2003 as environment minister. The two discussed such issues as using an exit from nuclear power to promote renewable energy, and the governor said Koizumi offered words of encouragement.

In the 2014 Tokyo gubernatorial race, Koizumi backed fellow former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, whose platform included an immediate halt to nuclear power as a key plank. Koike -- who joined Hosokawa's short-lived Japan New Party in 1992 -- is adopting an anti-nuclear platform for the just-announced snap election, raising concerns in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that she could work together with the popular Koizumi under the anti-nuclear flag.

Kibo no To will target Koike's existing supporters as well as voters disaffected with both the LDP and the opposition Democratic Party. In a news conference Monday peppered with references to both reform and conservatism, Koike said she established the party "because there's a need for a force for reform with no political shackles, in the truest sense."

With the general election only about a month away, whether the new outfit can recruit enough candidates remains to be seen. The governor said Kibo no To is attracting volunteers from all over Japan, and the party plans to select a mix of neophytes and veterans to run nationwide.

One high-profile defector from the LDP has already come on board. Mineyuki Fukuda, a senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office, joined Kibo no To on Monday. Koike hinted that she might have played a part in Fukuda's departure.

"There are 20 sitting lawmakers planning to participate," a party insider said.

Dual role

A poll conducted Friday through Sunday by The Nikkei indicates that public expectations for the new party have not risen much. But if Koike comes to the fore and leads the party, it may bring together big-name candidates and deliver the governor a third big political victory, after the 2016 gubernatorial race and this year's Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Koike faces the challenge of balancing her duties as governor and as leader of Kibo no To. She is not the only Japanese politician to do so -- Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui is also doing double duty as head of the minor opposition party Nippon Innovation Party.

However, the alliance in the Tokyo legislature between Tomin First no Kai -- the Tokyo party she effectively leads -- and Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner in parliament, complicates the matter. The governor's foray into national politics is meeting with backlash from Komeito, which had partnered with Tomin First on the assumption that it would focus exclusively on the capital.

Koike said her position of considering Tokyo residents first has not changed. But a rocky relationship with Komeito could make it tougher for her to govern.

Tricky dynamic

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have underestimated Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's ambitions.

The emergence of Kibo no To as a prospective lightning rod for anti-LDP sentiment represents a major miscalculation by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The prime minister called Koike a "formidable opponent" in a television appearance Monday. He brought up the fledging party in a press conference earlier that day, saying he liked the sound of the "party of hope" moniker. Abe also asserted that he and Koike share the same basic views on security, noting that she became Japan's first female defense minister during his first stint as prime minister in 2007.

Abe and Koike agree on many policy issues, including revising the constitution and how to deal with the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. Given these similarities, the two have sought to keep a slight distance from each other while sticking to their own lanes -- Abe in national politics and Koike in Tokyo. They have largely refrained from criticizing each other in public.

Should Abe lead his party to victory in the snap election and win a third term as LDP president in next year's party election, cooperating with Koike would be crucial to ensuring the success of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The prime minister likely had also considered working with the governor on such issues as changing the constitution.

Risk underestimated

Yet despite this ideological kinship, Koike is poised to become Abe's biggest rival.

The prime minister erred in assuming that the new party would be of little concern if it were led by the likes of Koike allies and lower house members Masaru Wakasa and Goshi Hosono, a former environment minister. And even with Koike at the helm, he thought that thrusting the party into a campaign without time to fully prepare would let him cast the election as a simple choice between the LDP and the Democratic Party.

By highlighting Kibo no To's differences with the LDP, Koike is forcing Abe to overhaul his strategy.

The prime minister sought to subtly distance himself from the governor in another TV appearance Monday night, noting that it remains unclear what policies she will pursue. He called Koike a "strong rival" and expressed hope for friendly competition that would improve both sides.

Abe has no intention of getting into an all-out confrontation with Koike, a source close to the prime minister said.

Democratic Party chief Seiji Maehara

Not one on one

Meanwhile, Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara seeks to establish a united front against the LDP, hoping that minimizing competition for seats will enable the opposition to overtake the ruling party.

A proposal has been floated for the Democrats to merge with the smaller Liberal Party. Maehara and Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa agreed Sunday on the need for a unified opposition built around their respective parties.

If the opposition does not coordinate to run a single candidate in each district, "the anti-Abe-administration vote could be split, which would work to the ruling coalition's advantage," a senior Democratic Party official warned.

The original aim was to engineer an alliance involving the Democratic and Liberal parties along with the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. But the emergence of Koike's Kibo no To has changed the political calculus.

Jin Matsubara, a former head of the Democratic Party's Tokyo chapter, resigned from the party Monday to join Kibo no To, becoming the fifth lawmaker to leave since Maehara took the reins this month. Some election candidates set to be endorsed by the party are also starting to move to Koike's camp. If the defections continue, the Democrats fear a repeat of the Tokyo legislative election, in which they were trounced by Tomin First.

Some in the party hope for a partnership with Kibo no To. Koike said Monday she can "communicate closely" with Maehara, noting their shared background in the Japan New Party. But she stressed that what is needed is agreement between parties on "reform, conservatism and policy," rather than a straight merger.

Since Maehara won the Democratic leadership race by courting conservatives, some still see the possibility of an alliance.

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