In the Tokyo gubernatorial race, which officially kicked off Thursday, an incumbent governor is seeking re-election for the first time since 2011. The two immediate predecessors of Gov. Yuriko Koike resigned in disgrace over scandals halfway through their four-year term. This gives voters a chance on July 5 to hand down their verdict on Koike’s achievements, which, despite her stunning victory in the race four years ago and subsequent aggressive political gambits, are not very impressive. Although Koike is deemed to be leading the race, she must prove that she can live up to her words.

Four years ago, Koike, then a veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, defied the party leadership and its Tokyo organization to enter and win the race to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe. The following year, her newly formed local party replaced the LDP as the dominant force in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. But her political fortunes waned after her ambitious bid for a return to national politics — as head of yet another new political party — faltered with the party’s disappointing performance in the 2017 Lower House election.

One of her first acts as governor in 2016 was to postpone the relocation of the capital’s aging wholesale market in Tsukiji due to concern over contamination of soil and ground water at the new Toyosu site. The relocation took place two years later at additional cost, but Koike claims the postponement made the relocation process more transparent. The redevelopment of the Tsukiji site, which she had pledged to turn into a food-related theme park, remains up in the air.

Koike also reviewed the massive costs of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. But her efforts to cut expenses by exploring the use of existing facilities, instead of building new venues for some events, produced few results.

Most of the campaign promises Koike made four years ago — from burying power lines to eliminating overtime work for metropolitan government staff — remain unfulfilled. She pledged to eliminate the waiting list for Tokyo’s child day-care facilities, but only succeeded in reducing it. Another pledge — to ease the heavy congestion on Tokyo’s commuter trains — appears to have been achieved temporarily due to the pandemic.

As governor of Tokyo, which accounts for one-third of domestic COVID-19 infections, Koike has been on the forefront of the fight against the new coronavirus, taking initiatives where the national government was accused of acting too slow. Managing the pandemic response will remain the biggest task for the next governor. Concerns remain over a second-wave outbreak, and sustained support for local small businesses will be an even tougher challenge as the metropolitan government’s emergency savings fund has already been depleted due to financial aid for businesses that had to close during the state of emergency.

The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which have been postponed to the summer of 2021, are also high on the candidates’ campaign agenda. Koike says she will seek to host the games next year in a simplified form and minimize costs as agreed on between the organizers and the International Olympic Committee.

But Reiwa Shinsengumi head Taro Yamamoto and Kenji Utsunomiya, former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, call for either canceling the games immediately or later if holding them is deemed difficult and using the resources to combat COVID-19. It is indeed unclear if the pandemic will be over in time for the games to be held in a fair and safe way for all athletes and participants, and it remains undecided who will shoulder the high cost of postponing the games — on top of the massive expense of fighting the pandemic.

The race to choose the governor of Tokyo has always been closely watched and has political implications beyond the capital’s borders. In a rare move, this time the LDP isn’t fielding a candidate and is not officially endorsing anyone, although party leaders vocally support Koike. The opposition camp, which remains fragmented following the breakup of the Democratic Party ahead of the 2017 election due to Koike’s new party gambit, is also unable to support a common candidate, and there is concern that Utsunomiya and Yamamoto may end up splitting the anti-Koike vote.

The importance of regional administrations such as prefectural governments in emergency responses was highlighted yet again in the COVID-19 crisis. Voters should not be distracted by the big parties’ political considerations. Instead they should think about what they expect of the next governor as they prepare to cast their ballots.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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