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Tokyo parties vie to get on governor's good side

Challenge from popular Koike sends Abe's ruling LDP into tizzy

TOKYO -- As Gov. Yuriko Koike prepares for an electoral showdown with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party here, other parties are scrambling to team with the popular governor, with even the local LDP faction showing an eagerness to steer clear of confrontation.

The date of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election was announced Wednesday by the local electoral commission. The July 2 poll is still months away, but it is already drawing a lot of attention, as it is seen as a prelude to the next election for the lower house of parliament. As such, Japan's political parties are taking this local election as seriously as national races.

Tomin First no Kai, a political group effectively led by Koike, named its first batch of four candidates Monday. The group plans to run about 40 candidates in total, including rookies drawn from a political school headed by the governor. Some will gun for seats held by senior officials in Tokyo's main LDP caucus.

Koike, who briefly served as defense secretary in a previous Abe government, ran for governor last year without the LDP's backing against a field including an LDP-endorsed candidate.

Other assembly factions -- including the Komeito caucus, despite the national party's partnership with the LDP -- are heeding Koike's call to build a pro-reform majority in the assembly. The fiscal 2017 draft budget announced Wednesday was praised by Komeito, while assembly members affiliated with the Democratic Party offered general support. The two factions are considering cooperating with Tomin First to avoid running candidates in the same districts.

The LDP increasingly fears that continuing to stand against Koike could end in crushing defeat. Addressing reporters Wednesday, two members of the main LDP bloc expressed doubts about how top party officials have responded to Koike and said they would form a pro-reform group within the caucus. Three lawmakers who had already split from the faction formed their own camp Tuesday.

The LDP is eager to avoid direct confrontation. "The LDP is not an anti-reform party," Naoki Takashima, one of the leading figures in the party's Tokyo chapter, said in a meeting Wednesday. The main LDP faction will likely vote in favor of the 2017 draft budget.

Koike's position is not unassailable. Tomin First still lacks an organization to support candidates, and some question the group's financial wherewithal. Though Koike has said the debacle surrounding the famed Tsukiji fish market's planned move to a contaminated site in Toyosu will be a "major point of debate," focusing on the issue too much now may end up limiting her options later.

The Feb. 5 mayoral election in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, which pits Koike-backed incumbent Masami Ishikawa against LDP-endorsed newcomer Makoto Yosano, will provide some indication of how the July legislative race will go. Victory for Ishikawa would be a big step toward reform, Koike said, playing up her clash with the LDP.

The LDP, meanwhile, seeks to play down that aspect of the race. Shigeru Uchida, former secretary-general of the party's local chapter and a Chiyoda Ward political heavyweight who backed Koike's LDP opponent for governor, said he would keep the results of that election out of this one.


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