By Ryusei Takahashi, Staff Writer
Less than a week remains until the capital’s gubernatorial election on July 5, and it appears the incumbent’s strategy — taking advantage of her popularity by running a defensive campaign — is working.
Polling data released by multiple sources over the weekend showed Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike leading the race by a large margin. She commands strong support not only among voters aligned with the ruling bloc but opposition parties as well, according to the data, leaving trailing candidates to vie for what’s left.
In a survey conducted by Kyodo News, Koike had the support of 70 percent of voters aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party and 90 percent of those aligned with Komeito, which together form a ruling coalition in the national Diet.
Even members of the LDP’s local chapter in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly — which has clashed with the Tokyoites First local party created by Koike in 2017 — are expected to vote for Koike.
While they trail her by a large margin, other front-runners include Kenji Utsunomiya, a 73-year-old lawyer and former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations; Taro Yamamoto, 45, former actor turned leader of 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 along with two other major opposition parties. According to the Kyodo poll, however, 60 percent of voters aligned with the CDP as well as 60 percent of unaffiliated voters say they plan to vote for Koike, while just 20 percent said they support Utsunomiya.
Polling results varied regarding which of the candidates was her closest challenger, but consistently showed her commanding a dominant majority across demographics and party lines.
The incumbent is enjoying a wave of popularity after Tokyo, by luck or by design, was spared a devastating outbreak of the novel coronavirus. That the governor was spearheading the capital’s countermeasures as it avoided disaster has handed her a de facto re-election campaign.
Experts predicted she would take a minimalistic approach to the election, focusing on virus countermeasures to deflect criticism that she was shirking responsibilities and taking a backseat during confrontations with other candidates.
That strategy was on display Sunday during a debate organized by Junior Chamber International Tokyo, in which the four front-runners as well as three other candidates squared off.
While most of the candidates were eager to put forward their ideas and challenge the others by asking direct questions, Koike spoke only of recent news regarding the novel coronavirus outbreak in Tokyo and elected not to elaborate too much or ask questions even when given the chance.
The candidates focused on two major topics: what virus countermeasures are necessary to prevent and prepare for a second wave of COVID-19, and when, if at all, Tokyo should host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The front-runners 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 second and subsequent waves of infection is dispelled.
But with regard to the 2020 Games, which have been postponed to next summer, Koike said she believed the capital could overcome 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 altogether.
Public opinion over the matter is divided. In a survey released by Tokyo Shimbun on Monday, 51 percent of respondents said the 2020 Games should be canceled or further postponed while 46 percent indicated that they thought next summer was the best time to host the event.
Formerly a member of the national Diet who later served as environment minister and defense minister, Koike has spent years climbing the bureaucratic ladder of Japanese politics to become the household name she is today.
While she has countless critics, her reputation has allowed her to run a passive campaign — and the polling results suggest it is working.
“The election of a governor in Tokyo often resembles a popularity contest, and rarely rises to the level of a serious discussion about public policy or party politics,” said Yasushi Aoyama, a professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance who served as Tokyo’s vice governor from 1999 to 2003.
Since Yamamoto announced his candidacy earlier this month, there has been speculation that he could split left-leaning and undecided voters with Utsunomiya and therefore cost both the election.
However, polling suggests the sum of voters divided between the two candidates still wouldn’t be enough to surpass Koike.
Candidates have one more week to contend for their slice of Tokyo’s 11.4 million registered voters, many of whom, Aoyama said, are eager to know what the city’s next governor will do about businesses struggling to survive amid the pandemic, the inbound movement of people from other urban parts of the country, alleviating public transportation, limiting the taxpayer burden caused by the 2020 Games and a host of other sociopolitical and economic issues.
Candidates had 17 days to connect with voters when campaigning began on June 18. In Japan, campaign periods commonly last anywhere between 7 and 12 days.
“Tokyo’s gubernatorial election has a longer campaign period than most Japanese elections,” Aoyama said. “This means voters have time to change their minds.”