Campaigning for the June 24 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election — widely viewed as the political prelude to July’s House of Councilors poll — officially got under way Friday.

The election, in which 242 candidates are vying for the assembly’s 127 seats, is also expected to be the first test for hugely popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose Liberal Democratic Party currently forms the largest force in the assembly with 48 seats.

Given the traditionally important role that metro assembly elections have played as a bellwether for subsequent Diet contests, major political parties are expected to mount campaigns rivaling those for national-level elections in their efforts to woo Tokyo’s 9.88 million voters.

Party leaders braved the rain in the capital to appear at rallies kicking off the campaigns.

“The LDP is reforming itself, and it will change,” Koizumi bellowed before a large crowd in front of JR Shinjuku Station late Friday afternoon in his first speech of the Tokyo assembly election campaign. “Some people say I am only making promises and will not act on them, but let’s see what I’ve accomplished in two months.”

Said Takenori Kanzaki, head of New Komeito, at a rally in front of Jiyugaoka Station on the Tokyu Line in Meguro Ward: “This election has a great bearing upon the Upper House election. It will determine the direction Japan will take in the 21st century and we want to be a force that holds the sway vote.”

The party, the third-largest force in the assembly and an LDP coalition partner at the national level, is mounting a limited-objective campaign in an effort to maintain its current position, fielding only the same number of candidates as seats that it already holds.

“Koizumi’s reform initiatives are those that we have been promoting for more than three years,” said Democratic Party of Japan head Yukio Hatoyama at a rally in front of JR Shinjuku Station. “But the LDP and its coalition partners are not trying to revamp their current business-style of politics.”

The DPJ is the fourth-largest group in the assembly going into the race, with 13 seats, and it hopes to double that number by fielding 33 candidates. However, its fortunes are believed to have been dealt a blow since the emergence of the reform-minded prime minister.

The Japanese Communist Party, with 27 seats the second-largest force going into the campaign, is fielding 48 candidates and hopes to at least retain the same number of seats it won in the last election, in 1997.

The Liberal Party, which is not presently represented in the assembly, is fielding 13 candidates, while the Social Democratic Party, which now has one seat, has placed six candidates on its ticket.

In spite of the widespread belief that the Tokyo assembly race will serve as a litmus test for the Koizumi government, many involved in the election said the Koizumi factor is unlikely to play a large role in voters’ minds.

“I like Koizumi, but I haven’t decided who I will vote for yet,” said an 80-year-old woman from Hamura, western Tokyo, who was listening to Hatoyama’s speech.

Yet voter turnout is expected to be higher than the record low 40.8 percent registered in the 1997 election, given the heightened interest in politics that has accompanied Koizumi’s rise to power.

Tokyo Seikatsusha Network, a political group with three seats going into the campaign, is fielding six candidates, while 60 candidates are likely to run as independents or from minor parties.

There are 44 female candidates expected to run.

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