July 3, 2020 / 2:42 AM / a month ago

Tokyo's first woman governor set for re-election even as coronavirus cases rise

TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike looks set cruise to victory in her bid for re-election on Sunday, buoyed by approval of her handling of the novel coronavirus even as a recent rise in infections triggers new concerns in the Japanese capital.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike wears a protective face mask during a press preview in Tokyo, Japan May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato/Files

Koike, 67, often floated as a potential prime minister, won plaudits from the public for her straight-talking approach to the pandemic in contrast with what critics say was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initially slow and clumsy response.

A former defence and environment minister, Koike is promising to prepare Tokyo - which accounts for about 20% of Japan’s economy - for any second wave of infections and gain public understanding for a “simplified” Olympics next year after the 2020 Summer Games were postponed because of the coronavirus.

“She’ll win by a landslide,” said independent political analyst Atsuo Ito, noting a poll in late May put her approval rating at about 70% while her opposition is divided and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is not running a candidate.

A former television announcer with well-honed communication skills, Koike warned in late March that Tokyo could face a coronavirus lockdown and called for an early state of emergency to tackle it.

She then tussled with Abe’s government over what businesses to target for shutdowns after he declared an emergency in April.

Japan has not seen the explosive outbreak of the virus suffered elsewhere but Tokyo, with a population of some 14 million, accounts for nearly 6,400 of its approximately 19,000 cases.

On Thursday, the metropolis confirmed 107 new cases, the most in two months, but the government - eager to revive a slumping economy - said it was not planning to reimpose the emergency that was lifted on May 25. More 120 new cases were found in Tokyo on Friday, the Nikkei newspaper reported.

Koike has said it might be necessary to a hold a more bare-bones Olympics next year because of the pandemic’s impact, but it is not clear who will shoulder the huge costs of the postponement and whether the Games can really go ahead in 2021.

Among other challenges she will face are repairing the city’s finances and coping with an ageing population.

Koike, who has switched parties several times and shares many of Abe’s conservative views, bolted from the LDP in 2016 to make a successful bid to become Tokyo’s first female governor.

A year later, she formed an upstart party in the hope - quickly dashed - of ousting the LDP from power.

Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Robert Birsel and Michael Perry

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