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Tokyo assembly race poses first big test for ambitious governor

With few differences on policy, Yuriko Koike faces de facto referendum on her leadership

A crowd gathers in Tokyo on Friday to hear candidates speak.

TOKYO -- The race for the 127-member Tokyo assembly officially began Friday, with Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and allies of Gov. Yuriko Koike locked in a battle that could frustrate the ambitions of both their leaders.

"We aim to secure a stable majority with allies who will work with us on reforms," Koike has said. Tomin First no Kai, her new political group that promises to "put Tokyoites first," is fielding 50 out of 259 total candidates, with another 38 allies running independently or with a different party.

Popularity contest

The political movement led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, left, is set to clash with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party in the July metropolitan assembly elections.

The long-delayed relocation of Tokyo's landmark Tsukiji fish market looms as the biggest issue in the race. Koike on Tuesday unveiled plans to proceed with a relocation to the nearby Toyosu district while redeveloping the old site within five years. She accused the LDP-led assembly of failing to conduct enough environmental safety checks at the new site.

The LDP is a strong advocate for the relocation. But it has rebutted Koike's claim, arguing the governor is simply trying to deflect attention away from her own indecisiveness.

Komeito, which forms part of the LDP-led national ruling coalition but will cooperate with Koike's new party in the Tokyo elections, has raised questions about the redevelopment plans. The leading opposition Democratic Party, meanwhile, supports Koike's direction, while the Japanese Communist Party objects to the relocation altogether.

But on most other topics, the parties more or less agree. They all want to discourage smoking indoors and have similar ideas on reducing the number of children waiting for publicly funded day care, for example.

"The race will ultimately be about whether or not the people support Koike's governing, rather than about individual policies," said a Tokyo politics insider. 

Koike held cabinet positions in LDP governments in the 2000s, serving as Japan's first female defense minister under Shinzo Abe during his first stint as prime minister.

Now, the well-known governor will take the lead in campaigning for Tomin First, given that 80% of the group's candidates are political neophytes.

Voter turnout could swing the outcome. The last Tokyo election had the second-lowest turnout in history at just 43.5%. The figure is expected to be much higher for the July 2 vote, given the level of public interest in this year's race.

Three scenarios

If Koike's group and her allies secure a majority and Tomin First emerges as the biggest party in the assembly, the governor will have free rein to advance her agenda, which includes restricting indoor smoking and cutting corporate taxes.

Success in the capital could also boost her profile nationally, especially with the LDP struggling to find a viable successor to Abe, its current leader. Koike herself denies that she is eyeing the national stage. But many LDP members believe the former defense minister is using Tokyo politics as a steppingstone to bigger things.

Koike's growing influence could even pose a serious threat to Abe, who is currently embroiled in a controversy over whether he influenced approval of plans for a veterinary school associated with a friend. The result of the Tokyo race may impact the timing of a planned cabinet reshuffle and possibly a snap lower house election.

A younger Koike saw her then-party disrupt Tokyo, then national, politics in 1993.

Even if Koike's camp wins a majority, the LDP could still end up as the single largest party in the Tokyo assembly. This would let the governor take control while also allowing Abe's party to save face.

The LDP enjoyed a historic victory in the last Tokyo race, when all 59 of its candidates won a seat. The party does not have nearly as much momentum this year, and becoming the assembly's leading party is all many members are hoping for.

The assembly's president is traditionally chosen from the largest party. The LDP's expertise in legislative affairs may boost its chances of winning over Koike's allies. Some LDP members also believe Komeito could switch sides in Tokyo, depending on Koike's approval rating.

Of course, it is possible that the Koike camp falls short of a majority in the assembly. This would force the governor to make significant concessions not only on the market relocation, but also on regulatory and budget decisions. Such an outcome would embolden the LDP and put Koike on the defensive. A political standstill might impact her approval rating and delay her return to the national stage.

Past Tokyo races have foreshadowed big changes in national politics. A minor party started by a LDP defector took 20 seats in the assembly in 1993. Later that year, the LDP fell out of national government, replaced by a ruling coalition led by the breakaway party, whose members included a younger Koike.


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