By Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki
TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is challenging Japan's old-boy network in the capital, where she thrashed a ruling party rival to win her post and now aims to lead reform-minded candidates to victory in a city-wide July election.
A popular former TV announcer who speaks Arabic and English, Koike is the leader of a mega-metropolis with an economy bigger than Holland's and a budget on par with Sweden's - and her reformist image has some politicians betting she could become Japan's first female premier in a few years.
For now, the former defense minister says her sights are set firmly on a July 2 Tokyo metropolitan assembly poll, where she's targeting a majority for her fledgling "Tokyo Citizens First" party and its allies.
Koike, in an interview with Reuters, compared herself to French President Emmanuel Macron, whose election marked a meteoric rise and whose party now needs a majority in June parliamentary elections so he can carry out reforms.
"I am doing the same - trying to increase the new assembly members who aspire to reform," she said. "Even if a (new) top leader is chosen, reforms will not progress if the legislature does not change."
Koike, who has made good governance a key policy plank after her two predecessors quit over scandals, has already caused a crack in Abe's ruling bloc by tying up with the Komeito party, the LDP's junior national-level partner, for the local poll.
After nearly a year in office, her support ratings are still above 60 percent, prompting defections from a struggling opposition Democratic Party and from the LDP.
"If her party wins the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election by a landslide, the next goal will surely be national politics," said Akihisa Nagashima, a lower house member of parliament from Tokyo who recently bolted the main opposition Democratic Party.
Koike brushed such speculation aside.
"I am concentrating on the single matter of what to do for Tokyo," she said, adding any sign she was eyeing national politics would sap motivation among metropolitan employees.
Topping her long-term priorities is designing a vision for Tokyo after 2025, when its population of about 13.7 million will start shrinking, said Koike, wearing a scarf in her signature color of green.
Koike has a record of challenging Japan's male-dominated politics and urged the Kasumigaseki Country Club, the golf venue in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to admit women as full members.
She stepped down after 55 days as defense minister in 2007 following a furor over her attempt to replace the ministry's top bureaucrat. Allies said her judgment was vindicated when Takemasa Moriya, also forced to step down, was convicted of taking bribes from defense contractors.
"She could assess he was a problem ... and replace him," LDP lawmaker Masaru Wakasa, a Koike supporter, told Reuters. "She did something a man couldn't have done," he added, referring to outsider status as a woman.
The next year, Koike, who migrated through several parties before joining the LDP in 2002, became the first woman to run for head of the conservative party. She came in a distant third.
Last year, she infuriated the LDP's Tokyo branch by running for governor without party approval. She defeated her LDP rival by a landslide.
Like former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, under whom she was environment minister, Koike's strategy is to paint the local LDP old guard as anti-reform. She has avoided criticizing Abe, with whom she shares hawkish views on security.
"The Tokyo chapter of the LDP ... has the power to turn back the pace of reform, but it does not have the power to push forward," Koike said. "That's why I am challenging that."
Critics question her ability to get results.
"Ms. Koike has excellent communication skills," Hakubun Shimomura, head of the LDP's Tokyo chapter, told Reuters. "But politics is not theatrics."
Koike has sparked controversy by putting hold a long-planned move of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market from its 80-year-old location along Tokyo Bay to a man-made island called Toyosu due to worries about soil contamination.
She has also clashed with ex-premier Yoshiro Mori, head of the 2020 Olympics organizing committee, over cost-cutting.
Any path for Koike to Japan's top job is likely to be long and steep. Nonetheless, several politicians said she could run for parliament in 2021, when an expected third term for Abe as LDP president and hence, prime minister, ends. If still popular, she could be anointed by the LDP to succeed Abe.
"If Ms. Koike makes the Olympics a success, her ratings will rise a lot," LDP lawmaker Hajime Funada told Reuters. "Then Abe would be a lame duck, and Ms. Koike would be the rising sun."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)