Critic of Shinzo Abe seeks to loosen ruling party's grip on Japan politics - with a new Party

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum at Russky Island, outside Vladivostok, on Sept 7, 2017.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum at Russky Island, outside Vladivostok, on Sept 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - A critic of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who helped an upstart group crush the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Tokyo's local elections two months ago is setting up a political organisation to attempt a similar feat at the national level.

Mr Masaru Wakasa is sifting through hundreds of applications from around the country for entry to a "political school", with a view to having some run for parliament under a party he will establish by December, the lawmaker and former LDP member said in an interview. 

Mr Abe has faced little coherent opposition since he took office in 2012, even though his popularity has waned amid a series of scandals ahead of elections due by December next year.

The main opposition Democratic Party, mired by in-house bickering, has failed to generate any bump in public support even after it chose a new leader last week.

"A lot of people have been supporting the LDP in a negative way," Mr Wakasa, 60, said at his office this week. "It's not that they actually think the LDP is good, but just that there's no alternative." 

The first lecture for the 200 or so successful applicants to Mr Wakasa's "Nippon First" school will be given by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who defeated Mr Abe's candidate in a leadership contest last year and went on to form Tomin First - or Tokyo Residents First - a new party that she led to victory in the capital's local assembly elections in July.

Mr Wakasa, who lacks Ms Koike's widespread recognition, faces hurdles to replicating her success in the national election. A survey conducted by the Mainichi newspaper on Sept 2-3 found only a third of respondents had positive expectations for the new group, while more than half said they did not.

Support for the ruling LDP was at 29 per cent in the Mainichi poll, while the Democratic Party garnered only 5 per cent. Fifty per cent said they favoured no party.

"He could do very well, or very badly - a lot depends on what happens to the Democratic Party," said political science professor Steven Reed at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Mr Wakasa is more likely to secure numbers by recruiting existing independent lawmakers and potential defectors from among disaffected Democrats, rather than by expecting large numbers of new recruits to win election, Prof Reed added.

While the new party's policy platform is undecided, it will be broadly "conservative" but pro-reform and slightly to the left of Mr Abe's administration, Mr Wakasa said, adding that he did not support the current administration's efforts to loosen restrictions on the military under the pacifist constitution.

The former prosecutor, who supported Ms Koike's campaigns, wants half of his party's lawmakers to be women. Less than 10 per cent of Japan's lower house is female, despite Mr Abe's target of having women take 30 per cent of management positions in all fields by 2020.

Mr Wakasa also aims to rid policy making of vested interests, he said. "The LDP is all about vested interests. If we don't get away from that, Japan will go into decline for the next 30 years," he said.