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New party's general election offensive in Tokyo area a threat to LDP

House of Representatives legislator Masaru Wakasa, left, and former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono are seen in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Sept. 24, 2017. (Mainichi)

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is increasingly worried it faces a disaster in the Tokyo metropolitan area on the same scale as its historic defeat in July's Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly poll, as a new party being launched by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike gears up for a likely October general election.

The nascent party is aiming to field candidates in almost all constituencies in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures in the next House of Representatives election, expected to be called for October should Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolve the lower chamber at the outset of the extraordinary Diet session scheduled for Sept. 28. The new political force poses a real threat to the LDP, after the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First party) -- then led by Gov. Koike -- steamrolled the ruling party on the way to winning the Tokyo assembly election.

The LDP is also wary of defections to the new party from its own ranks, following the surprise Sept. 24 announcement by LDP lawmaker and Cabinet Office state minister Mineyuki Fukuda that he would do just that. The largest opposition Democratic Party (DP), from which former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono and other members recently decamped, is also vigilant against any further defections.

"There is a host of extremely powerful constituencies in Kanagawa Prefecture, so we will aggressively field candidates there," Hosono told reporters in Tokyo on Sept. 24, suggesting the new party will field candidates in all of the prefecture's 18 constituencies.

LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General Koichi Hagiuda tried to check the new party's moves by commenting on Sept. 24, "We want Ms. Koike to be dedicated to the metropolitan administration." During the Tokyo assembly election campaign, the LDP blasted Tomin First's policies to no avail.

A senior LDP official admitted to their party's grim prospects in the upcoming general election, saying, "The new party will be an effective alternative to the DP for voters critical of the current administration, not only in Tokyo but also in the northern and southern Kanto regions."

Prime Minister Abe judged the time was ripe for a general election call, as he deemed that the DP's low public support would continue and the new party was not yet prepared for an election fight. If the new party manages to field its candidates in almost all single-seat constituencies in the Tokyo area, however, it could spoil Abe's election script.

LDP defector Fukuda has been elected to the lower chamber three times -- all after losing in his constituency but being spared a proportional representation seat.

Fukuda told a senior official of his LDP faction -- led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso -- that he would switch to the new party due to "circumstances surrounding my constituency." Some LDP members were indifferent to the move, with one party source saying that Fukuda jumped parties "because he has no prospect of winning in his constituency."

"Junior lawmakers will inevitably get preoccupied with how to survive the upcoming election," said a former Cabinet minister, suggesting that other LDP members may also jump on the new party's bandwagon.

The DP is also feeling squeezed by new party's growing momentum, after Kanagawa Prefecture representatives Hirofumi Ryu and Yuichi Goto went the way of Hosono, and two rookie lawmakers also informed the DP of their intention to depart. Former lower house member Koichiro Katsumata, also from a Kanagawa constituency, is also moving to leave, while accelerating defections are expected among DP members from Tokyo constituencies.

DP defectors to the new party have varying backgrounds, from rookies to incumbents and former legislators, though they all apparently chose to leave after deeming their chances of winning in the general election slim. A senior DP official raised the alarm against such moves, saying, "Competition for candidates between the new party and the DP would only please the LDP." On the evening of Sept. 24, Hosono told reporters that at least one other incumbent lawmaker has approached the new party.

Embattled DP leader Seiji Maehara is poised to field rival candidates in DP defectors' electoral districts, while also implying possible cooperation with the new party. It is uncertain, however, whether these carrot-and-stick tactics will bear fruit.

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