TOKYO - Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike will step down as leader of opposition party Kibo no To (Party of Hope), she said on Tuesday (Nov 14).
Kibo no To, which suffered a chastising defeat at last month's general election, will be led by four-term Lower House lawmaker Yuichiro Tamaki, 48.
Ms Koike, who founded the party in late September, said: "I'd like to leave national affairs in the hands of our party lawmakers and so will give up my position as party leader. But I will continue to support the party in an appropriate manner."
She said she will focus on her duties as governor of Tokyo - a sprawling metropolis larger than Singapore, and with a population of nearly 14 million - in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. She will be in Singapore for a three-day visit from Wednesday (Nov 15) as part of the Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellowship programme, which invites outstanding individuals for high-level visits.
Her resignation came just five days after Mr Tamaki, formerly of the Democratic Party (DP), was elected co-leader at a party caucus last Thursday (Nov 9), and despite her promise after the election hammering that she would not step down as party leader to take responsibility.
The party fielded 235 candidates and won just 50 seats in the Oct 22 election. This was seven fewer seats than it had in the Lower House before the vote.
Kibo no To did not become the largest opposition force in the chamber and ceded that honour instead to the newer Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), which fielded 78 candidates and won 55 seats.
The party started with much fanfare as Ms Koike, in a statement of intent, tried to steal the thunder by announcing the formation of the new party mere hours before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a snap election.
But the initial roar soon turned into a whimper, as public trust was quickly eroded by Ms Koike's perceived arrogance and her party's vague populist policy promises.
A public survey by broadcaster NHK on Monday (Nov 13) showed that only 3.2 per cent of respondents supported Kibo no To - down 2.2 percentage points from the previous survey conducted a week before the election.
Conversely, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had the support of 37.1 per cent, up 4.3 points, while the CDP was supported by 9.6 per cent, up three points.
Ms Koike has, since being elected governor by running against the LDP's nominee in July last year, portrayed herself as a Joan of Arc taking on the grey elite of Japan's political establishment. She was once a member of the LDP, and was a former environment minister and the country's first female defence minister.
She formed Kibo no To as a right-wing opposition to the LDP, although both parties have similar hawkish ideologies, differing only on issues such as tax and nuclear policy. She declined to step down as Tokyo Governor to run for a Lower House seat.
Mr Tamaki, who represents the No. 2 district in Kagawa prefecture, is aligned with Ms Koike's vision of a constitutional revision and a more active military.
"We are a tolerant, conservative, reformist party," the Nikkei quoted him as saying last week on his election as party leader.
He also rejected any possibility of an alliance with former DP members who are now with the CDP, saying that this was counter-productive and would only "turn back the clock".
University of Tokyo political scientist Yu Uchiyama said that Ms Koike's resignation as Kibo no To's leader will allow Mr Tamaki to chart the party's path on his own terms.
"The concept of a 'co-leader' had made it ambiguous as to who would actually lead the party," he said. And with Kibo no To being rudderless under Ms Koike's leadership, he added: "What Mr Tamaki needs to do first is to clear the party of Koike's image."
Dr Sota Kato, executive director for policy research at the Tokyo Foundation think tank, told The Straits Times that Ms Koike will face an uphill battle in regaining the trust of voters in Tokyo, where Kibo no To was roundly beaten.
"This was a tactical move," he said. "She recognises that the only way to regain her credibility and popularity is to achieve some eye-grabbing successes as governor. I expect her to keep a low profile for a while and focus on her job, while waiting for another chance."