National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Koike's Tokyo win may be springboard back into national politics

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff writer

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s triumph in the gubernatorial election on Sunday was predictable, but the sheer size of her towering margin of victory could serve as a steppingstone in her road back to national politics.

While Koike has never said so herself, it’s an unspoken assumption in Tokyo politics that she has her sights set on one day returning to the Diet and becoming the country’s first female prime minister.

“Every politician wishes they could become prime minister,” said Kenneth McElwain, a professor of comparative contemporary politics at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science. “Not everyone has the opportunity. Koike does.”

In Sunday’s election, 3.66 million people — about 59 percent — voted for Koike, far exceeding the tallies gained by all three trailing candidates combined. Kenji Utsunomiya, Taro Yamamoto and Taisuke Ono respectively earned 13.5, 10.5 and 9.8 percent of the vote.

Of the 11.3 million eligible voters in the capital, 55 percent cast ballots in the election. In 2016, voter turnout was about 59 percent. Despite fewer voters overall, Koike raked in 760,000 more votes on Sunday.

Including Koike, the capital’s residents have elected nine governors over the course of 21 elections since 1947 after the end of World War II. Her dominant victory is second only to Naoki Inose, who was elected governor of Tokyo in 2012 with 4.33 million votes.

Four years ago, Koike won a landslide victory and become the capital’s first female governor.

A fresh face with innovative ideas, her candidacy brought new life to an otherwise male-dominated political landscape. Since then, however, her first term in office has been marked by a series of political hurdles overcome with questionable success. In 2017, Koike created two political parties: Kibo no To, or the Party of Hope, and Tomin First no Kai, otherwise known as Tokyoites First.

The former failed to attract enough members and began to bleed support before it could gain any ground in the national Diet, while the latter now maintains a strong grip on the ruling bloc in the city’s metropolitan assembly. Koike subsequently resigned as the leader of Kibo no To and distanced herself from the party.

When Koike abandoned the party, her future in national politics was thrown into doubt, McElwain said. However, he went on, the strength of her regional party, Tomin First, as well as the capital’s avoidance of a devastating coronavirus outbreak, helped revive those dreams.

Regardless of her political ambitions, most of the governor’s time is bound to be overtaken by the ongoing pandemic.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greet each other as they meet at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greet each other as they meet at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO

During a news conference on Monday, Koike said she intends to focus on virus countermeasures and bolstering the city’s health care system by raising testing capacity, increasing hospital beds and strengthening collaboration with neighboring prefectures and within the greater metropolitan area.

“Containment of the novel coronavirus, as well as depopulation and a slew of other pressing issues, will be the focus of my second term,” Koike told reporters. “I intend to fulfill my duty as the leader of Tokyo, just as I believe I have the past four years.” She also vowed to establish what she called a “Tokyo CDC,” an administrative body modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. that would pull together existing arms of the metropolitan government and consolidate the city’s response to the ongoing pandemic.

Leading up to the election, the governor enjoyed a wave of renewed popularity after Tokyo emerged from its initial brush with the novel coronavirus with only minor cuts and bruises.

Cities and large urban centers around the world are reeling from heavy casualties while Tokyo has recorded a relatively low number of COVID-19 infections. On Monday, Tokyo recorded 102 new cases, pushing its total to 6,765 cases and 325 deaths. Observers said the gubernatorial election served as an evaluation of Koike’s response to the coronavirus outbreak through the eyes of voters.

The results, however, are not a reflection of her performance as governor, said Nobuo Sasaki, professor emeritus of the Chuo University’s Faculty of Economics. “Voters simply didn’t want the city’s leadership to change during an ongoing crisis,” he said.

The economy was on shaky ground long before the arrival of the pandemic and the postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Both have cost the country direly in the form of multiple stimulus packages for municipal governments and individual households, as well as the prolonged funding of staff, athletic venues and organizing bodies.

As the country’s coronavirus epicenter, and host city of the quadrennial global sporting event, Tokyo is the focal point of the country’s economic instability.

“We’re faced with an economic problem, and it’s likely that Tokyo will fall deeper into the red over the next four years,” Sasaki said. “The city needs a leader focused on business, not on self-serving politics.”

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