Tokyo election polls open, serves as test to PM Suga ahead of Olympics

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Residents headed to the polls in Tokyo on Sunday for a metropolitan assembly vote that could provide clues to how Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his ruling party will fare in a general election expected after this month’s Olympics.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. Sunday and will close at 8 p.m. in the battle for power in the 127-seat metro assembly representing the nearly 14 million residents of the Japanese capital. The election comes less than three weeks before the opening of the games, which are strongly backed by Suga, despite widespread concern about staging the global sports spectacle during a pandemic.

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Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party currently has 25 seats in the assembly, compared with the 45 held by Tokyoites First, a local party formed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who now serves as an adviser. The Constitutional Democratic Party, the main opposition force at national level, controls eight seats.

Gains in the assembly would be good news for Suga, whose party suffered three by-election defeats in a single day in April, and could be taken as a sign of political stability by markets. Suga has seen his approval rating slump to its lowest levels since he took office in September, hit by scandals and criticism of his handling of the pandemic.

Both the LDP and Tokyoites First called for faster vaccinations in their campaigns, while Tokyoites First said it would press for spectators to be excluded from the Olympics. Suga has said the idea of barring fans hasn’t been ruled out.

Virus numbers have been picking up in Tokyo, raising worries about whether the government can stem infections before the July 23 opening ceremony. While Japan’s initially delayed vaccine rollout has accelerated, only about 12 percent of the population is fully inoculated, leaving many people at risk. Signs of a slowdown in the program are also emerging.

In the 2017 vote, the LDP suffered a shock defeat to Tokyoites First when it was an upstart party riding on the coattails of its founder, Koike. Sunday’s election will not affect Koike’s position as governor, to which she was re-elected for a second four-year term in 2020. After staying out of the public eye for more than a week citing exhaustion, Koike appeared at several Tokyo First events on Saturday, the last day of campaigning.

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