Tokyo voters rescued Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday, giving the battered party 53 seats in the metropolitan assembly and a new lease on life.

The LDP, which had been crippled under the leadership of then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori just two short months ago, was demoralized and facing the prospect of a major loss in the upcoming Upper House election.

Sunday’s victory, however, was taken as a sign that the “Koizumi effect” has breathed new life into the battered party and rescued it from almost certain defeat, based largely on the reform policies of the highly popular leader. With a total of 127 seats up for grabs, the LDP, which started out the election with 48 seats, won 53, followed by 23 seats for New Komeito, 22 for the Democratic Party of Japan, and 15 for the Japanese Communist Party.

Taku Yamasaki, the LDP secretary general, said Sunday night that the party’s victory in the Tokyo metropolitan area, where it had performed poorly in previous national and local elections, will “give a boost” to the party ahead of the Upper House elections planned for late next month.

The JCP lost 11 seats, the biggest loss in the election, giving up its status as the second-largest party in the Tokyo assembly to New Komeito.

The Democratic Party of Japan increased its number of seats to 22 from 13, gaining less than they could have expected before Koizumi became prime minister. All of New Komeito’s candidates were elected.

The election was being closely watched as the prelude to next month’s House of Councilors election. It was also being followed as an indicator of whether the Koizumi effect would carry over to local elections.

It apparently did. According to election commission officials, voter turnout was 50.08 percent, up 9.28 percentage points from the record low of 40.80 percent in the 1997 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Absentee voters also made a strong showing, sending 404,241 ballots, or 2.93 times more than received in the previous election, the officials said.

The poll was also the first for the administration of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who assumed office in April 1999. Ishihara has been enjoying high support rates in public opinion polls for pressing forward with his reform policies.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of New Komeito, one of the three partners in the LDP-led ruling coalition, said Sunday night that his party appealed to voters as a “pioneer of reform.” Voters answered by electing all 23 of the party’s candidates.

Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party, conceded defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and attributed the LDP’s victory to Koizumi’s sky-high popularity.

The Democratic Party of Japan was looking to make major gains before Koizumi was elected, especially in Tokyo. But Koizumi’s popularity dampened its power. The largest opposition party won the most votes in the metropolitan area in the last Lower House elections held in June last year.

Tokyoites began casting ballots at 7 a.m. at the 1,832 polling stations in 42 electoral districts. Competing were 244 candidates, including 44 women. Voting closed at 8 p.m., and the general makeup of the assembly was expected to be known at around midnight. The final results will be known at around 1 a.m. today.

Tokyo’s population of 12.02 million — of whom 9.9 million are eligible voters — accounts for about 10 percent of Japan’s 126.9 million people.

The ruling LDP, which currently holds 48 seats in the assembly, fielded 55 candidates, while the Japanese Communist Party, which holds 26 seats, fielded 44 candidates. New Komeito, which has 23 seats, fielded the same number of candidates.

The DPJ, the largest opposition force, has 13 seats and fielded 33 candidates. The Social Democratic Party, which holds just one seat, fielded six. The Tokyo Seikatsusha Network, a local party holding three seats, put up six candidates while the Liberal Party, which doesn’t have any seats in the assembly because it was formed in January 1998, fielded 13.

A total of 63 candidates ran as independents or hail from minor parties.

The LDP is the largest bloc in the assembly but does not have a majority. The party is depending on the popularity of Koizumi, its president, to help it gain seats. However, the party fielded its smallest number of candidates ever.

They were selected when the party was under the leadership of Koizumi’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, who suffered from extremely low support ratings.

The DPJ hoped to gain seats by capitalizing on its overwhelming victories in single-seat constituencies in Tokyo in last year’s House of Representatives general election, held when the unpopular Mori was in office.

According to a Kyodo News survey conducted earlier this month, the largest group of respondents said they would vote for an LDP candidate, followed by the DPJ and New Komeito, with the JCP coming in fourth.

When asked what issues interested them, the respondents, allowed multiple answers, put economic measures on top, followed by medical and welfare issues, and administrative and financial reform.

The survey recorded voter interest in the election at 76.0 percent after combining respondents who were “very much interested” in the poll with those who said they had “some interest.”

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