The governor of Tokyo has launched her bid for a second term after a high-profile response to the coronavirus pandemic that showed she was still a rival to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Yuriko Koike, the most powerful elected woman in Japan, is expected to cruise to victory despite hostility from the local arm of Mr Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic party and allegations that she overstated her academic record.
Re-election for Ms Koike would allow her to preside over the postponed Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and keep her in position to influence national politics if Mr Abe should stumble.
“Four years ago I jumped off a cliff and ran for this position with no party endorsements,” said Ms Koike, announcing her candidacy at a press conference on Friday evening.
“Once again, I am not seeking the support of any party but the endorsement of Tokyo voters.”
Ms Koike is a former environment minister for the LDP who dramatically defected to run for the Tokyo governorship in 2016 as an independent, winning by a landslide. She then started her own Party of Hope to challenge Mr Abe in national elections in 2017 but that effort was a flop.
The gubernatorial election, to be held on July 5, will confirm whether she has bounced back. Ms Koike pushed for widespread business closures to tackle coronavirus when Mr Abe’s government was still wavering.
“Governor Koike is going to win a big victory,” predicted Takao Toshikawa, editor of the political newsletter Tokyo Insideline. “There’s no unified opposition candidate and even the LDP is not standing against her.”
The absence of a candidate from her former party, despite the bitter enmity of its Tokyo chapter, reflects her political strength and connections.
Ms Koike’s enemies in the city assembly have instead demanded that she produce her graduation certificate from Cairo University. Her studies in Egypt in the 1970s are a central part of Ms Koike’s political CV, but she has refused to produce the document, saying she showed it in the past.
A new book called Empress Yuriko Koike, which questions her academic record and criticises her leadership style, has become a bestseller since its release last month. The row prompted Cairo University to issue a statement through the Egyptian embassy in Tokyo this week to confirm that Ms Koike had graduated.
Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University and a former politician, said Ms Koike’s eye for advancement meant she was disliked by political insiders. “She’s so oriented to her ambitions. She’s such a populist and an opportunist,” she said. “However, it doesn’t matter. What Tokyo voters think is that she’s doing pretty well regarding Covid-19.”
At 67, Ms Koike is still young by Japanese political standards, and Mr Toshikawa believes that she still aspires to become the nation’s first female prime minister. “I don’t think it is very realistic but I don’t think her ambition has gone away,” he said.
After the failure of her Party of Hope, the only route to a national comeback would be to reconcile with the LDP. Ms Nakabayashi said that would only be conceivable if Mr Abe’s party was in deep trouble and needed a saviour able to command public attention, which is Ms Koike’s great skill.
“She’s just waiting for the opportunity,” said Ms Nakabayashi. “If the Abe administration weren’t doing well then maybe she could get the spotlight.”