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Rain or shine — and weather forecasts anticipate the former — voters have a chance to reshape the capital’s legislative body during the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on Sunday.

But perhaps not its policies.

The factional makeup of the city’s assembly stands to change dramatically, with 271 candidates vying for 127 seats across the capital’s 42 electoral districts.

And yet, the focus of this election lies not on the ambitions or aptitude of individual candidates — or even their plans to confront the city’s myriad socioeconomic issues — but on how many seats each party wins or loses, and why.

“The central issue of this election is that there is no central issue,” said Yasushi Aoyama, former vice governor of Tokyo and a political science professor at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance. “The issue isn’t the virus or vaccines or the Summer Games — it’s unlikely that a change in the ruling party in the metropolitan assembly would have a large impact on those things anyway.”

Even though the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito together hold a tight grip on the national Diet, since the previous election four years ago a majority of seats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly have been held by Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), a local party created in 2017 by Yuriko Koike a year after she was elected Tokyo governor.

Koike, who ran as an independent candidate in 2016, serves as special adviser to Tomin First.

The 45 seats held by Tomin First — along with Komeito’s 23, following the surprising decision by its Tokyo chapter to separate from the LDP and ally with Tomin First — had given Koike a towering majority over the LDP, which had 25 seats.

But Komeito and the LDP resurrected their local ties earlier this year in a strategic partnership aimed at bolstering their chances in Sunday’s election and to align the Tokyo assembly with the Diet.

While projections and public polls vary, the LDP is expected to win anywhere from 50 to 55 seats on Sunday.

Komeito and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) are front-runners for the second largest contingent in the next assembly, while Tomin First is expected to suffer huge losses.

Aoyama believes Komeito could retain or win back all 23 of its seats, Tomin First could dip to as low as 15 and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), which has eight seats now, could lose one or two.

A banner hanging in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku Ward calls on voters to cast their ballot in the assembly election on Sunday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
A banner hanging in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku Ward calls on voters to cast their ballot in the assembly election on Sunday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The JCP currently has 18 seats, which is historically high for the party, whose representatives usually number in the single digits. But Aoyama believes the party could gain more seats this election and threaten Komeito’s aspirations to be the No. 2 group in the assembly due to fluctuating public approval throughout the pandemic toward the Suga administration and the LDP-Komeito ruling bloc.

The outcome could largely determine whether the LDP will enjoy an amicable majority over the next four years or spend that time battling for votes and airtime with the JCP.

“What’s more important,” Aoyama said, “is whether this election creates a more diverse legislature — namely the number of women, which has been growing for some years — or if that forward progress is derailed.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly is the country’s largest municipal legislature and also one of its most diverse.

While women only accounted for less than a third of the candidates elected to the assembly during the last election in 2017, that number was nearly triple the national average and was a marked improvement from 19.7% in 2013.

Sixty-five candidates were women during the last election, which was a record for Tokyo. This time around, 76 women are running for a seat.

Women account for 14 of the 46 seats currently held by Tomin First.

“The biggest fear is the number of women in the assembly will drop,” said Momoko Nojo, founding director of No Youth No Japan, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising political participation among the country’s youth. “But (Tomin First) doesn’t have Koike’s wind like it did in 2017, so it’s almost certain the party will lose most of its seats.”

Tomin First’s victory in 2017 has been attributed mostly to the celebrity and momentum Koike picked up during her landslide victory in 2016. Not only has that energy faded, debates over how many local fans should be allowed to attend the Tokyo Games have been divisive.

Koike and Komeito have aligned themselves with the central government’s decision to allow a limited number of domestic spectators — though that could change as the most recent wave in the capital worsens — while Tomin First has called for all spectators to be banned from attending events.

The governor’s health concerns have also hurt Tomin First in the campaign.

Koike stepped away from her duties in late June and was hospitalized for severe fatigue. She was discharged from the hospital Wednesday morning and participated in a number of meetings that day — albeit remotely, as per her doctor’s instructions — but her absence didn’t bode well for the party she founded.

A candidate speaks to the public on June 26 in Tokyo ahead of Sunday's assembly election. | KYODO
A candidate speaks to the public on June 26 in Tokyo ahead of Sunday’s assembly election. | KYODO

The party’s current predicament falls in stark contrast to its success during the election in 2017.

Koike’s whirlwind victory the year prior, following her risky but ultimately successful departure from the LDP to run for governor, propelled Tomin First to a majority in the capital’s assembly.

Unlike the Diet, where the ruling party essentially chooses the prime minister, the capital’s assembly is less one-sided, therefore many governors typically spend a large part of their time tussling with a powerful ruling party.

That wasn’t the case for Koike. And for all the criticism that she’s an ambitious populist with her sights set on becoming the country’s first female prime minister, she was re-elected last year in a soaring victory.

But last year was a gubernatorial election and the situation in the capital then is different from what it is now.

Less than two weeks have passed since a third state of emergency in the capital was lifted and a rebound in new cases of COVID-19 has residents fearful of a fifth wave of the pandemic. Quasi-emergency measures are in place in the city until July 11, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to decide before then whether those measures will be extended.

Meanwhile, less than three weeks remain until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games — the same day new terms for assembly members begin.

While the metropolitan assembly has limited sway over national policy, the results of the election on Sunday could be a litmus test for how Tokyo residents feel about Koike and the prefectural government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, particularly given the city’s determination to host a global sporting event during a pandemic.

Both are prickly issues, even among candidates.

The current administration’s performance and the city’s COVID-19 response were rated poorly by candidates in a survey published Tuesday by Asahi Shimbun.

On a scale of 1 to 5, more candidates gave the Koike metropolitan government a 1 than any other score. The city’s COVID-19 measures were also given poor ratings.

The margin of victory between the likely election winners, the LDP and the party that comes next depends on how many voters make it to the polls, said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science.

The results of the election could actually depend on the weather. Poor conditions can have a bigger impact on local elections, which typically see lower turnouts than national elections.

The Tokyo assembly election in 1959 drew just over 70% of voters to the polls, a record that still hasn’t been beaten. The lowest turnout was 40.8% in 1997.

During the previous election, in 2017, about 51% voted.

“In terms of the mobilization of voters, (the LDP and Komeito) remain very strong but, in terms of independent voters, there may be a tailwind behind (the JCP and CDP),” McElwain said. “(Tomin First) is going to suffer as a result.”

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