Abe Faces Off against Tokyo Governor as Election Campaign Begins in Japan

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, attends an election campaign rally in Fukushima, Japan, October 10, 2017.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, attends an election campaign rally in Fukushima, Japan, October 10, 2017.
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Abe Faces Off against Tokyo Governor as Election Campaign Begins in Japan

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, attends an election campaign rally in Fukushima, Japan, October 10, 2017.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, attends an election campaign rally in Fukushima, Japan, October 10, 2017.

Campaigning for the lower house election kicked off in Japan on Tuesday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeking to fend off a challenge from the Tokyo governor.

Up for grabs are 465 seats in the more powerful of Japan's two-chamber parliament.

The October 22 election pits Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition against the less than one-month-old Party of Hope headed by popular Governor Yuriko Koike, a former LDP lawmaker often floated as a possible first female premier.

Her upstart new party has pledged to rid the government of cronyism in a challenge to Abe’s near-five year hold on power.

Abe says he needs to renew his mandate to cope with a “national crisis” stemming from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat and the demographic time-bomb of Japan’s fast-ageing population.

"We should stay unwavering," he said. "It is the policies, rather than a boom or slogans, that can open the future."

The 63-year-old Abe called the poll amid opposition disarray and an uptick in approval ratings that had slid due to a series of scandals over suspected cronyism.

But, the sudden emergence of Koike’s party, which also appeals to conservative voters, could upset Abe’s calculation. The main opposition Democratic Party imploded last month and a big chunk of its candidates are running on the Party of Hope ticket.

Koike, who defied the LDP last year to run for governor, calls her fledgling party a “reformist, conservative” group free from the fetters of vested interests -- an often popular campaign slogan in Japan.

“We have a surplus of things in this country, but what we don’t have is hope for the future,” said Koike, 65, kicking off her campaign outside one of Tokyo’s major train stations.

Koike has repeatedly said she won’t run for a seat which would make her eligible for the premiership and has declined to say whom her party would support for the post, leaving the door open to a variety of possible tie-ups including with Abe’s LDP.

Others outside the station were less convinced by Koike’s talk of cleaner politics, while trusting Abe to safeguard national security.

“I doubt she can deliver politics free from vested interests,” said Minori Hiramatsu, a 28-year-old mother of one who was on her way to a job interview.

“Abe has problems domestically, but he is the best person to protect us from North Korean threats.”

The LDP-led coalition is defending a two-thirds “super majority” in parliament’s lower house, so losing its simple majority would be a major upset. Abe’s LDP had 288 seats in the lower house before it was dissolved for the election, while its junior partner the Komeito had 35.

Recent opinion polls show the LDP in the lead and some analysts think Abe could still pull off another landslide victory.

A soggy performance for the LDP, however, could stir calls from inside the party to replace Abe or deny him a third term as leader in September 2018, ending his chances of becoming Japan’s longest-serving premier.

The Party of Hope echoes Abe’s LDP on security and diplomacy - it backs tough sanctions on North Korea and controversial security legislation enacted in 2015 to expand the military’s role overseas.

Koike also agrees with Abe that Japan’s post-war, US-drafted, pacifist constitution should be amended, though not necessarily on what changes are needed.

On economic policies, Koike’s party has sought to differentiate itself by calling for an end to nuclear power by 2030 and a freeze on a sales tax hike planned for 2019.

Abe wants to keep nuclear power as a key part of Japan’s energy mix, and raise the sales tax and spend more of the revenues on education and child care.

A center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, formed from the liberal wing of the failed Democratic Party, is wooing voters dissatisfied with both conservative options.

Constitutional Democratic Party leader Yukio Edano said Abe's nearly five years of pro-business policies have escalated Japan's social divide.

"We must regain decent lives," Edano said. "We are going to change politics into one that is based on the people's voices, not one that comes down from up above."

Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says the election could be a transition to a less stable political environment as party alliances and re-groupings may continue after the election.

A favorable result for Koike's party and its possible alliance with Abe's ruling party would mean a dominance of ultra-conservatives. In that case, Nakano said, "Japan wouldn't have a viable party system with any significant competition to speak of."



Israeli Supreme Court Says Ultra-Orthodox Men Must Serve in Military

A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
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Israeli Supreme Court Says Ultra-Orthodox Men Must Serve in Military

A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)

Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for military service, a decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza. 

The court ruled that in the absence of a law that distinguishes between Jewish seminary students and other draftees, Israel’s compulsory military service system applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other citizens. 

Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men have been exempt from the draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women. These exemptions have long been a source of anger among the secular public, a divide that has widened during the eight-month-old war, as the military has called up tens of thousands of soldiers and says it needs all the manpower it can get. Over 600 soldiers have been killed. 

Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, oppose any change in the current system. If the exemptions are ended, they could bolt the coalition, causing the government to collapse and leading to new elections. 

During arguments, government lawyers told the court that forcing ultra-Orthodox men to enlist would “tear Israeli society apart.” 

The court decision comes at a sensitive time, as the war in Gaza drags on into its ninth month and the number of dead soldiers continues to mount. 

The court found that the state was carrying out “invalid selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law, and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law.” 

It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox should be drafted. 

The court also ruled that state subsidies for seminaries where exempted ultra-Orthodox men study should remain suspended. The court temporarily froze the seminary budgets earlier this year. 

In a post on the social media platform X, cabinet minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, who heads one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, called the ruling “very unfortunate and disappointing.” He did not say whether his party would bolt the government. 

“The state of Israel was established in order to be a home for the Jewish people whose Torah is the bedrock of its existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” he wrote. 

The ultra-Orthodox see their full-time religious study as their part in protecting the state of Israel. Many fear that greater contact with secular society through the military will distance adherents from strict observance of the faith. 

Ultra-Orthodox men attend special seminaries that focus on religious studies, with little attention on secular topics like math, English or science. Critics have said they are ill-prepared to serve in the military or enter the secular work force. 

Religious women generally receive blanket exemptions that are not as controversial, in part because women are not expected to serve in combat units. 

The ruling now sets the stage for growing friction within the coalition between those who support drafting more ultra-Orthodox and those who oppose the idea. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are likely to face intense pressure from religious leaders and their constituents and may have to choose whether remaining in the government is worthwhile for them. 

Shuki Friedman, vice-president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank said the ultra-Orthodox “understand that they don’t have a better political alternative, but at same time their public is saying ‘why did we vote for you?’” 

The exemptions have faced years of legal challenges and a string of court decisions has found the system unjust. But Israeli leaders, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, have repeatedly stalled. It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to do so again. 

Netanyahu’s coalition is buoyed by two ultra-Orthodox parties who oppose increasing enlistment for their constituents. The long-serving Israeli leader has tried to adhere to the court’s rulings while also scrambling to preserve his coalition. But with a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-member parliament, he's often beholden to the pet issues of smaller parties. 

Netanyahu has been promoting a bill tabled by a previous government in 2022 that sought to address the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment. 

But critics say that bill was crafted before the war and doesn’t do enough to address a pressing manpower shortfall as the army seeks to maintain its forces in the Gaza Strip while also preparing for potential war with the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has been fighting with Israel since the war in Gaza erupted last October. 

With its high birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest-growing segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 ultra-Orthodox males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10% enlist, according to the Israeli parliament’s State Control Committee.