One week before Tokyo governor’s election, Koike takes the lead in polls

There are less than a week left before the capital’s governor is elected on July 5, and it appears that the incumbent’s strategy – to capitalize on his popularity by running a defensive campaign – is working.

Survey data released by several sources over the weekend showed that Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike was leading the race by a wide margin. It obtains strong support not only among voters aligned with the ruling bloc, but also among opposition parties, according to the data, leaving the runaway candidates to fight over what remains.

In a Kyodo News poll, Koike had the support of 70% of voters aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party and 90% of those aligned with Komeito, who together form a ruling coalition in the National Diet.

Even members of the LDP local at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly – which faced the first local Tokyoite party created by Koike in 2017 – should vote for Koike.

As they follow her from afar, the other leaders include Kenji Utsunomiya, a 73-year-old lawyer and former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations; Taro Yamamoto, 45, former actor who became leader of the anti-establishment party Reiwa Shinsengumi; and Taisuke Ono, 46, former vice-governor of Kumamoto Prefecture.

Utsunomiya has the support of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan as well as two other major opposition parties. According to the Kyodo poll, however, 60% of voters aligned with the CDP as well as 60% of unaffiliated voters say they plan to vote for Koike, while only 20% said they supported Utsunomiya.

Poll results varied as to who was their biggest opponent, but consistently showed that they dominated the majority of demographics and parties.

The incumbent is experiencing a wave of popularity after Tokyo, luckily or by design, was spared a devastating epidemic of the new coronavirus. The fact that the governor directed the capital’s countermeasures while avoiding disaster earned him a de facto re-election campaign.

Experts predicted that she would take a minimalist approach to the election, focusing on viral countermeasures to deflect criticism that she shirked her responsibilities and took a back seat when confronted with other candidates.

This strategy was exposed Sunday during a debate organized by the Junior Chamber International of Tokyo, during which the first four as well as three other candidates clashed.

While most candidates were keen to present their ideas and challenge others by asking direct questions, Koike only talked about recent news regarding the new coronavirus epidemic in Tokyo and chose not to elaborate too much or to ask questions even if the opportunity arises.

The candidates focused on two major topics: what viral countermeasures are necessary to prevent and prepare a second wave of COVID-19, and when, if any, Tokyo is expected to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The avant-garde people largely share the same position on the measures that would be necessary in the capital until a viable treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed and the threat of a second wave of infection and following is dispelled.

But with regard to the 2020 Games, which have been postponed until next summer, Koike said she believes the capital could defeat the virus in time to host them safely. Ono said the quadrennial sporting event should be postponed to 2022 or 2024, while Utsunomiya and Yamamoto both said it should be canceled.

Public opinion on the issue is divided. In a survey released Monday by Tokyo Shimbun, 51% of respondents said the 2020 Games should be canceled or postponed, while 46% said they thought next summer was the best time to host the event.

A former member of the National Diet who was then Minister of the Environment and Minister of Defense, Koike spent years climbing the bureaucratic ladder of Japanese politics to become the name she knows today.

Although she has countless critics, her reputation has allowed her to run a passive campaign – and the survey results suggest that it works.

“The election of a governor in Tokyo often looks like a popularity contest, and rarely goes up to the level of a serious discussion on public or party politics,” said Yasushi Aoyama, professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance who was vice-governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2003.

Since Yamamoto announced his candidacy earlier this month, there has been speculation that he could split left and undecided voters with Utsunomiya and therefore cost the two elections.

However, polls suggest that the sum of voters divided between the two candidates would still not be enough to overtake Koike.

Candidates have one more week to fight their 11.4 million registered voters in Tokyo, many of whom, said Aoyama, are anxious to know what the next city governor will do for businesses fighting for survive in the midst of the pandemic, the incoming movement of people from other urban parts of the country, easing public transport, limiting the taxpayer burden caused by the 2020 Games and a host of other socio-political and economic problems.

Candidates had 17 days to contact voters when the campaign started on June 18. In Japan, campaign periods generally last between 7 and 12 days.

“The Tokyo governor elections have a longer campaign period than most Japanese elections,” said Aoyama. “It means voters have time to change their minds.”

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