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Tokyo gubernatorial election on July 5: Five things to know

Incumbent Koike leads the race; opposition calls for canceling Olympics

The Olympic logo is illuminated at dusk on April 4 in Tokyo's waterfront Odaiba district.    © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Tokyoites will choose their governor on July 5 as the capital faces two major tasks -- keeping the coronavirus under control and making the Olympic Games a success next year.

The 67-year-old incumbent, Yuriko Koike, will be running for reelection. A win for her would be a de facto vote of confidence in her performance in the last four years.

Will Tokyoites seek continuation, or change? Here are five things you need to know.

Why does it matter?

This is an election to choose the leader of Japan's largest prefecture by population, which has 14 million inhabitants and an economy nearly as big as Mexico's. It also accounts for a fifth of Japan's economy. The governor is covered by the media intensively and has a strong influence on setting political agendas.

It will be a popular vote heavily influenced by independent voters, which make up around 40% of the constituency.

The last three elections were held after the incumbent left the post, either to run for national office or due to scandals. Koike is the first governor to serve out the four-year term and seek reelection in nine years.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike gives a speech to public on June 22.    © Kyodo

A conservative politician, Koike is a former lawmaker of the Liberal Democratic Party, the nation's ruling party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

She was considered a maverick in the party. She used to be a TV presenter, and entered politics in 1992. She changed parties numerous times before joining the LDP in 2002. She ran for the gubernatorial election four years ago without the party leadership's consent -- the LDP supported another candidate, who lost. 

What are the key issues?

Preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections is the most pressing issue for the capital, where more than half of the nation's reported cases have occurred. The number of new cases has stayed in the double digits since the state of emergency was lifted on May 25.

The Olympics will also be an issue to be discussed in the election campaign. Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic Games next year, having decided to postpone for one year. This will result in an estimated 300 billion yen ($2.8 billion) in additional costs.

But Tokyo faces a major financial crunch. To deal with the pandemic, it has used up almost all of its 934.5 billion yen ($8.8 billion) in rainy-day savings, meaning it has little financial wherewithal left to deal with a second wave or the additional costs for the Olympics.

What is Koike's track record?

In the last four years, Koike has revised the plan to relocate the historic Tsukiji fish market. She also cut the cost of hosting the Olympics by using existing facilities outside Tokyo rather than building new ones.

But some criticize Koike for being a populist more focused on public relations than pushing for real reforms. Koike has been a master at creating buzzwords that generate headlines.

Before becoming governor, as minister of environment in 2005 she started an energy conservation campaign named "Cool Biz"  which encouraged Japanese to dress casually without ties and jackets during summer to reduce the need for air conditioning.

Her penchant for catchphrases has sometimes led to confusion. On March 25, the day after the Olympics was postponed for one year, Koike said a "lockdown" would be necessary if the virus spread unabated. However, Tokyo cannot legally impose a lockdown, so looser stay-at-home and business-closure requests took place instead.

The prefecture's virus alert system was invoked on June 2 but was turned off on June 11, the day before she announced she was running for reelection, even though new cases have continued to trend upward. 

"It created an impression that Koike has bent the rules to suit her campaign," said Mari Miura, a professor at Sophia University.

Who is likely to win?

Opinion polls have shown that Koike has a wide lead over the 21 other candidates.

"The electoral map overwhelmingly favors Koike," said Michael Thomas Cucek, assistant professor at Temple University, Japan Campus. He noted that she runs as independent but is indirectly supported by the LDP -- given her popularity, the party decided not to field its own candidate. She secured support from the major labor union Rengo's Tokyo branch.

Among the progressive candidates running against her is Kenji Utsunomiya, a 73-year-old former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations who is backed by the liberal opposition party, Constitutional Democratic Party. He argues that Japan should cancel the Olympics if it poses a pandemic risk for Tokyo.

Another liberal candidate is former lawmaker and actor Taro Yamamoto, 45. He is calling for immediate cancellation of the Olympics to save money, as well as pay 100,000 yen ($930) in cash handouts for each citizen.

An attendee holds a signboard encouraging social distancing at an election rally in Tokyo on June 18.   © Kyodo

Tomoaki Iwai, professor at Nihon University, predicted that Yamamoto, the most vocal opponent of the Olympics, could do well in the election. Iwai noted that Koike has not laid out a clear plan about how to receive so many spectators in Tokyo without increasing the risk of an outbreak.

What will be the implications for Japan?

In the past, Koike was seen as in the running to be the first female prime minister. She is the first female governor of Tokyo as well as a former defense minister.

Few believe she harbors ambitions for national politics after her failed attempt in the 2017 general elections -- she left the LDP and established a new party to challenge it.

However, she failed to unite opposition lawmakers, because she rejected liberal members who wanted to join her group. The party failed to gain political clout in the lower house and broke up in less than a year.

How she performs in the local elections and handles the issues facing the capital might give her a chance to challenge the LDP again in the future.

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