The Tokyo gubernatorial election, whose campaign is now in its second week, should be an opportunity for voters to choose the leader of the nation’s capital on the merits of the candidates’ policies and capabilities, not their ties to major parties and interest groups. The candidates, for their part, need to deepen their policy discussions to provide the electorate with more useful information with which it can make the best choice.

The July 31 election is the fourth gubernatorial race in Tokyo since 2011, as Shintaro Ishihara quit in 2012 to run for a Diet seat halfway through his fourth term and his two successors — Naoki Inose and Yoichi Masuzoe — resigned in disgrace over money-related problems.

Popular attention has focused on the structure of the race, which has attracted a record 21 candidates but is effectively a three-way contest. Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and locally elected Lower House member of the Liberal Democratic Party, was the first to announce her candidacy among the three front-runners — without the organized endorsement of the LDP, which, along with its ruling coalition ally Komeito, fielded Hiroya Masuda, a former governor of Iwate Prefecture and internal affairs and communications minister.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties that campaigned against the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the July 10 Upper House election are jointly backing veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe, who entered the fray just two days before the official campaign began last week.

Media polls taken over the first weekend of the campaign showed Koike and Torigoe out in front, with Masuda trailing — apparently due to a split in the conservative vote with Koike — although a large portion of the surveys’ respondents remain “undecided” at this stage.

The governor of Tokyo is tasked with running an administration that dwarfs any of the nation’s 46 other prefectures. Its ¥13 trillion annual budget is even larger than that of Sweden, and its 168,000 personnel is double that of Osaka Prefecture. While it occupies a mere 0.6 percent of the nation’s land, Tokyo accounts for more than 10 percent of Japan’s population and its daytime population tops 15 million. Tokyo’s ¥93 trillion GDP (in fiscal 2014) — or about 20 percent of the nation’s total — makes it among the world’s 20 largest economies. While the nation as a whole faces a population decline, Tokyo continues to attract people, businesses and resources.

The high-profile Tokyo gubernatorial races have often mirrored rivalries in national politics, with the political interests of major parties holding the key to selection of candidates. At the same time, Tokyo elections have been marked by upsets due to the power of unaffiliated swing voters characteristic of the metropolis. The LDP also saw its candidates lose in 1991 and 1999 when the conservative vote was split, as in the ongoing race.

Koike casts herself as a lone wolf fighting the powerful campaign machine of the LDP’s Tokyo organization, which reportedly circulated warnings to its members that they would be expelled if they backed her: After all, she defied the local chapter’s wishes by joining the race. Masuda, calling for an end to “confusion” in the metropolitan government after the serial resignations, is pitching himself as a solid hand in local administration based on 12 years of experience as Iwate governor.

The opposition forces led by the Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party hope that a win by Torigoe with their joint endorsement will make a dent in the sweep in recent major elections by Abe’s ruling coalition. After the Democratic Party struggled for weeks to find a viable contender, Torigoe announced his candidacy at the last minute — saying he decided to run out of a sense of crisis over the victory of Abe’s bloc in the Upper House election.

Widely known for his criticism of the Abe administration and popular due to his appearances on TV news programs, Torigoe may be the favorite to win if the theory in Tokyo gubernatorial elections — that the last to enter the race sweeps up the votes — holds true. But he apparently joined the contest unprepared, and his policy positions have been generally criticized as lacking specifics. Kenji Utsunomiya, a former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations who was runner-up in both the 2012 and 2014 elections with the endorsement of the JCP and the Social Democratic Party, initially refused to withdraw from the race to pave the way for a joint opposition campaign on the grounds that Torigoe’s policies are unclear. He eventually backed down on the evening before the campaign began, but it’s not clear if Torigoe has since sufficiently clarified his policy agenda.

It may be its implications in national politics that make Tokyo gubernatorial races so intriguing to watch. But for voters, what should matter is the candidates’ policies and their ability to carry them out. The last two gubernatorial candidates that voters elected — in the process casting a record 4.3 million ballots for Inose in 2012 and 2.1 million for Masuzoe two years ago — ended up resigning in disgrace. In a Kyodo News poll, roughly 40 percent of the respondents cited education and child-rearing support, along with medical and nursing care services, as the most important issues that they want the new governor to tackle. Such responses are a reflection of the policy challenges that confront the capital. The Tokyo race should be about these and other policy questions.

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