• Kyodo

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Voting is underway in the Yokohama mayoral election, with the result set to have major implications for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s hopes of remaining in power beyond the fall.

Hachiro Okonogi, a former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission and a close Suga ally, and the opposition-backed Takeharu Yamanaka appeared to be neck-and-neck heading into the Sunday poll, with incumbent Mayor Fumiko Hayashi trailing.

A loss by Okonogi, 56, would be a significant blow to Suga heading into a leadership race of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a general election in the coming weeks and months.

Yamanaka, 48, a data scientist and a former professor at Yokohama City University, has criticized Suga’s government over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan is experiencing its largest wave of COVID-19 yet and dissatisfaction with Suga’s handling of the pandemic is growing, with a recent nationwide survey by Kyodo News showing support for his Cabinet at a record-low 31.8%.

The second most populous city in the country after Tokyo, Yokohama is home to the constituency of the prime minister’s seat in the House of Representatives.

Yamanaka is running with the support of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan as well as the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

He has criticized the government as having ignored calls from infectious disease experts to take stronger measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Besides serving as a gauge for Suga’s popularity, the Yokohama election is a referendum of sorts on the city’s bid to host a casino after Japan legalized their operation as part of so-called integrated resorts in 2018.

Hayashi, 75, who has served three terms as mayor since 2009, looks to push ahead with the plan as a way of creating jobs and boosting the city’s economy.

Okonogi, meanwhile, has come out against the construction of a casino, arguing it is unclear how quickly tourism will recover after the pandemic.

Yamanaka is also against the plan, saying the oceanfront property that has been set aside should be used to build hotels, concert halls and other facilities.

In addition to the three leading candidates, five others, including former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa and former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, are also running, making for a record-high number of people vying to lead Yokohama.

The polls close at 8 p.m. Sunday with the result expected later in the night.

The city had 3,140,067 eligible voters as of Aug. 7, the day before campaigning officially began. Voter turnout in the previous mayoral election in 2017 was 37.21%.

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