TOKYO — Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is poised to be reelected in Sunday’s polls, buoyed by public support for her coronavirus handling despite a recent rise in infections that has raised concerns of a resurgence of the disease.
The first woman to head the Japanese capital, Koike. 67, is also viewed as a potential candidate to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when his term ends in September 2021. For now, she says she’s focused on protecting the lives of the 14 million people in Tokyo, a megacity with a $1 trillion economy.
“Fighting against the coronavirus for the residents of Tokyo is my first and foremost responsibility,” she said on the eve of the election. In her campaign message online, Koike pledged to balance disease prevention and the economy under Tokyo’s “new normal.”
Tokyo’s infections started to rebound in late June to reach 131 confirmed cases on Saturday, topping 100 for a third straight day and hitting a two-month high since early May. New daily cases have also spiked in recent weeks nationwide to about 19,700 with 977 deaths.
Koike’s challengers include popular actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto and veteran lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya. Yamamoto wants to cancel the Tokyo Olympics and use the funds to help people hurt by the coronavirus crisis, while Utsunomiya, known as the Bernie Sanders of Japan, is calling for better welfare support for a more inclusive and diverse society.
Results are expected soon after polls close Sunday night. A recent poll by the Mainichi newspaper has Koike leading her opponents by a wide margin.
Outside of a poling station in downtown Tokyo, retiree Hidekazu Tamura said he voted for Koike because of her effort to secure the Olympics. “I say no to anyone who is against the Olympics,” he said.
Another voter, Yojiro Tsuchiya, said he doesn’t think Koike has addressed growing concerns about the latest jump in infections. “I don’t think they have a clear grasp of the current situation,” he said, adding that he voted for Utsunomiya, who is pushing for more expanded testing.
Among other things, Koike says Japan should have its own version of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also tried to gain public understanding for a simpler version of the Tokyo Olympics after the Games were postponed to next year due to the pandemic.
Though Koike has not fully delivered on promises to Tokyo residents to relieve congestion on commuter trains, ensure adequate availability of child and elder care facilities and end overwork, even her critics have generally lauded her handling of the pandemic. That’s in sharp contrast to Abe, who has been criticized for doing too little, too late.
As the pandemic deepened in the spring, Koike often upstaged fellow conservative Abe, whose support ratings have plunged due to his handling of the crisis and its severe impact on the economy, on top of a slew of scandals.
A former TV newscaster, Koike is stylish and media savvy. She earned the nickname “migratory bird” for hopping between parties and forming new alliances — at least seven times — a rarity among Japanese politicians famous for their loyalty to party factions.