TOKYO – Just days before Japan's national election campaign kicks off, all eyes are on Tokyo's populist governor, a political go-getter and a gambler. Will she jump into the race and try to unseat Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?
Yuriko Koike has repeatedly denied she will run, but she has surprised before.
She remained coy about her national ambitions in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, saying her next step was in God's hands.
Koike upstaged Abe last week as he was preparing a carefully scripted plan to call the Oct. 22 snap election, announcing ahead of his news conference that she would personally head a new party, the Party of Hope, which she had been backseat-driving.
Her pre-emptive strike quickly lifted the fledgling Party of Hope to second place in media surveys, behind Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. What had been the main opposition force, the Democratic Party, all but collapsed, with many of its members joining the Koike team.
But the Party of Hope has lost some steam and is struggling to recruit the 233 candidates it needs to have a mathematical shot at a majority in the 465-seat lower house of parliament.
So far it has 199 candidates, a majority of them defectors from the Democratic Party. The party faces a Tuesday deadline, as does Koike to decide whether to declare her candidacy.
Experts generally agree that the Party of Hope could take away seats from the LDP, but not enough to come to power. If Abe loses around 50 seats, he would likely face calls to step down.
Recent media polls show 45 percent of respondents favoring Abe as prime minister, versus 33 percent for Koike.
If her chances of becoming prime minister are slim, Koike may well sit out this election and instead try to play kingmaker by teaming up with someone with power or wait for the next opportunity, experts say. Having recruited a large chunk of the opposition, Koike is now acting friendlier toward the ruling party, though she publicly still says she wants Abe out.
"I think Koike has largely given up her ambition of becoming prime minister or defeating the Abe government. But she is seen trying to stay as an influential player after the election by assisting the Abe government instead," said Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
"What's driving her, it seems, is really a quest for power more than anything else. She wants to be close to power," he said.
Koike told the AP that she wants to push the national government to speed up changes needed in Japan by starting them in her city. She said women's advancement and measures for Japan's aging and shrinking population have come too slowly under Abe.
Her political rivals have criticized her for switching between "two pairs of shoes" for taking part in local and national politics, but Koike says her dual approach is good for both.
"As Tokyo governor, I want to achieve policies in Tokyo as a model for all of Japan to follow. Why? Because it's faster that way," Koike said. "In order to do so, I also need to change national politics."
Koike is seen as having steadily pursued power, rather than sticking to political principles. She was once called a migratory bird for her repeated party-hopping and regrouping — seven times to date.
Her past remarks show she is politically very conservative, hawkish and revisionist on Japan's wartime history — quite similar to Abe.
Koike has imposed an allegiance test on those who want to defect to her party: they must support Abe's new security law broadening Japan's military role and a revision to the war-renouncing Constitution — a platform also pushed by Abe.
More liberal lawmakers have launched another party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, led by popular former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. It has earned more Twitter followers than the LDP.
Koike, despite her recent row with the LDP, has not cut ties with heavyweights in the party, and there has been speculation she may eventually side with them. In terms of political views, Koike and Abe are "cut from the same ideological cloth," said Stephen Nagy, political professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
"Koike is an astute observer of the political winds in Japan. She understands that some voters are seeking an alternative to Prime Minister Abe and the LDP and that she is positioned to bring about that change if voters take a leap of faith and vote for (her party)," he said.
A former LDP lawmaker for 15 years, Koike has served in key Cabinet and ruling party posts, including defense minister and environment minister, before becoming the first female leader of Japan's capital in July 2016.
A TV newscaster-turned-politician, Koike is stylish and media savvy. She is colorful and a smooth talker who sounds decisive — a stark contrast to somewhat tense and somber Abe, who has been prime minister for nearly five years.
As Tokyo governor, she has advocated administrative reforms, reviewed costly venues for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to reduce city spending, suspended a divisive relocation of the Tsukiji fish market over safety concerns and halved her salary — measures seen as a typical populist approach.
Koike, however, has faced criticism that she hasn't actually achieved much except for "resetting" projects, and running for parliament again would expose her to criticism that she is abandoning Tokyo before her work is done.
She launched her regional Tomin First no Kai, or the Tokyoites First Party earlier this year for the Tokyo city assembly election in July, scoring a big win that boosted her base and foreshadowed her return to national politics.
Koike understands "the game of mediatized politics that the point is to continue to be exposed," Nakano said, comparing her to U.S. President Donald Trump.
"She doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, she could be very wrong," Nakano said, but by monopolizing the public's attention, some voters start thinking she may be the one who could change Japan for the better.
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