Tokyo voters cast ballot on Sunday in local polls seen as test of ruling party's strength

This time, as many as 259 candidates are vying for the 127 seats at stake.
This time, as many as 259 candidates are vying for the 127 seats at stake.PHOTO: AFP

The Japanese capital of Tokyo votes on Sunday (July 2) in a local assembly election that has taken on national prominence.

For one, the poll is seen as a gauge of how recent scandals have impacted the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Top officials including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are concerned the party will suffer a hammering as voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect 127 assemblymen who will decide on laws that apply within Tokyo for the next four years.

"A castle that takes three years to build can be destroyed in a day," he said at a rally last Wednesday (June 28), apologising in his capacity as LDP chief a day after his defence minister drew flak for name-dropping the military to lobby for votes.

Last Friday (June 30), he was reportedly heckled when he apologised again, and said: "Our policy messages are not reaching voters because of all these reports (about the scandals)."

At a rally at the electronics district of Akihabara on Saturday (July 1) night, Mr Abe was again heckled, with calls for him to resign.

Media opinion polls show the LDP will likely lose its majority in the assembly to a new force - the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) that was formed in January and run by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. She quit the LDP last month.

This is the stiffest political challenge the LDP has faced in the capital since 2009, when the LDP lost its majority to the then-Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), or Minshuto. That election would prove to be a harbinger for national polls months later, when the LDP ceded control of the government to the DPJ.

This time, as many as 259 candidates are vying for the 127 seats at stake.

The LDP, which had 57 members in the former assembly, is fielding 60 candidates. Its coalition partner Komeito has joined forces with Tomin First in the Tokyo polls while maintaining their coalition ties with LDP at the national level.

Tomin First is fielding 50 candidates, who are mostly political novices or defectors from other parties, while the Komeito is fielding 23 candidates. At least 64 seats are required to win a simple majority in the assembly.

Polling opens from 7am to 8pm local time (6am to 7pm in Singapore), with results expected by Sunday night.

A strong showing by Tomin First will strengthen Ms Koike's hand in governing the capital, home to 13.7 million people.

Sunday's vote follows a string of scandals and gaffes that has plagued the LDP and led to a plunge in the party's and Mr Abe's approval ratings.

Last week, Defence Minister Tomomi Inada told a rally that she urged their support "on behalf of the Defence Ministry, the Self-Defence Force, and the LDP".

She retracted her statement the same evening, and offered a public apology last Friday (June 30) for "causing misunderstanding".

Mr Abe has himself come under scrutiny for two successive favouritism scandals. The latest, over allegations that he had pulled strings to help win the approval for a veterinary school for the Kake Gakuen education institution run by a close friend, has also ensnared other top LDP officials.

Last Thursday (June29), a tabloid alleged that the LDP executive acting secretary-general Hakubun Shimomura, who was former education minister, received a total of 2 million yen from Kake Gakuen from 2013 to 2014, but the funds were not declared.

Despite the string of scandals, analysts say any loss for the LDP in Tokyo might not translate on the national level this time, given that there is still no formidable national opposition force.

Tomin First remains but a local power, they told The Sunday Times.

"The ace up their sleeve is an opposition in disarray that gains little traction from his mounting follies," said Dr Jeffrey Kingston of Temple University Japan.

Dr Sota Kato, executive director of think-tank Tokyo Foundation, said a hammering at the local polls might lead to a Cabinet reshuffle with "young fresh faces", and even a snap election.

This would "easily catch many parties off guard, before they can field competitive candidates," he said.

Prime Minister Abe does not have to call a vote until December 2018.

waltsim@sph.com.sg