Female Opposition Lawmaker Set to Challenge Tokyo Governor

(Bloomberg) -- A leading female opposition lawmaker will challenge Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike for control of the capital, setting up a rare race between two women for one of the highest-profile posts in Japanese politics.

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Former opposition leader Renho Saito, who usually goes by her given name, will take on Koike for the Tokyo governorship, she told reporters Monday. An upper house lawmaker with the Constitutional Democratic Party, Renho is known for her tough questioning in parliament and her dislike of wasteful public spending.

Incumbent Koike, the first woman to head the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, intends to run for a third consecutive four-year term in the July poll, according to the Asahi newspaper and other media.

“The people clearly want a re-set of Koike politics in Tokyo, which has helped extend the life of the LDP government,” Renho said. “It’s my duty to take the helm.”

Renho’s move presents a fresh headache for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as he struggles to shore up his support ahead of a race for the leadership of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September. The CDP has consistently attacked him over his handling of a widespread party funding scandal.

While Koike once sought to oust the LDP national government, she is a former party member and has more recently toned down her criticism.

A battle between two well-known women — both are former television presenters — is a rarity in a country where politics is male-dominated. Japan ranks 162 out of 181 in terms of female representation in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, lower than Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Tokyo Elects First Woman Governor by Landslide Over Abe Pick

Koike has smashed glass ceilings throughout her political career. In 2008, she became the first woman to run for leadership of the LDP and in 2017 she launched her own party, though its initially strong support rapidly fizzled. As environment minister, she spearheaded efforts to promote casual dress for office workers in the summer to cut back on air conditioning use.

Since defeating an LDP candidate to become governor in 2016, Koike has sought to bolster Tokyo’s status as a global financial center and introduced local certification for same-sex partnerships in a country that doesn’t recognize gay marriage. Nonetheless, Renho accused her of failing to fulfill seven pledges, including a promise to enable people to stay in work while caring for elderly relatives.

Renho was known for an aggressive cost-cutting drive during the 2009-2012 administration of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan. She also briefly led a later version of the party during a period of internal disputes and was criticized for having dual nationality. She stood down after less than a year at the helm, citing an insufficient ability to lead and a poor showing in a Tokyo local assembly election.

The CDP’s policies include reducing income disparities and bolstering support for families with children, according to its website.

Renho’s announcement comes after the LDP lost a closely watched election for the governorship of Shizuoka prefecture on Sunday. The latest blow for Kishida and the party follows the loss of three parliamentary seats in special elections last month.

Polls show support for Kishida’s cabinet remains under 30%, a level seen as a danger zone for Japanese leaders, amid public dissatisfaction with his handling of a long-running party funding scandal. The election for Tokyo governor often attracts a slew of candidates and at least one man has also thrown his hat into the ring — Shinji Ishimaru, the mayor of a small city in Hiroshima prefecture.

--With assistance from Jon Herskovitz.

(Updates to change sourcing from first paragraph.)

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