TOKYO – The new party of the Japanese capital's populist governor appeared headed for a thumping victory Sunday over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's scandal-laden ruling party in a closely watched Tokyo assembly election that could alter national politics.
Gov. Yuriko Koike's Tomin First no Kai, or Tokyoites First party, was projected to win up to 50 of the 127 assembly seats, or all of the candidates it fielded, Japanese television stations reported Sunday evening after the voting ended.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, took a beating for recent scandals and an increasingly criticized high-handed approach. It was projected to win only up to 30 seats — down from its current 57, and less than its record low of 38 seats set in 1995 and 2009, according to national broadcaster NHK. The LDP fielded 60 candidates.
Koike's Tomin First party and the Komei party, its new ally and the LDP's longtime coalition partner in parliament, are certain to secure a majority of the assembly seats together, making it easier for Koike to push through her political agenda.
Although official results were not expected until Monday, Koike declared victory as she decorated the names of her party's projected winners on a white board with flower-shaped ribbons in the shade of green — her signature color.
"We are certain to become the leading party" in the assembly, she said, adding that the results had exceeded her expectations. "I believe our policies from the perspective of the Tokyo residents won a mandate from voters."
Opinion polls ahead of the election predicted a big win for Koike's party, with Abe's Liberal Democrats taking a hit after being buffeted by scandals and gaffes.
"The results are very severe," LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, one of Abe's top aides, told reporters. "It's the voters' judgment and we must take it seriously."
Television footage showed Abe coming out of a restaurant after meeting with top officials from his party Sunday night, but the prime minister briskly walked away, refusing to comment.
The result of the Tokyo assembly election has in the past set the tone for national elections. Koike is rumored to be eyeing a return to parliament to run for prime minister.
A former TV newscaster, Koike became Tokyo's first female leader last summer and earned a reformist image after repeatedly clashing with the male-dominated city government. She portrayed the LDP-dominated assembly as a place of murky politics run by an anti-reform old boys' club that is interfering with her agenda, including cost-cutting of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She has approval ratings of about 60 percent.
Koike, 64, had shifted parties until settling with the LDP in 2002 and since held key party and Cabinet posts, including defense minister. She angered party seniors when she abruptly ran for Tokyo governor last year, but did not officially leave the party until last month to head her own. She keeps friendly relations with Abe, prompting speculation that she may eventually run for his job.
Abe had long enjoyed stable approval ratings since taking office in 2012, but he and his party have been hit by a series of scandals in recent months.
Most recently, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada was grilled over her questionable remark at an election rally for a local LDP candidate when she asked for support from her ministry and the Self-Defense Force, which was seen as violating laws stipulating neutrality of civil servants and the military.
Abe is also embroiled in his own scandal, in which he is alleged to have influenced an approval of a school run by his friend. He has repeatedly denied the allegations and has rejected intensifying calls from opposition lawmakers and civil groups for an investigation or to provide further explanation in parliament.
Throughout the Tokyo assembly election campaign, Abe stayed behind the scenes, reportedly out of concern that his presence would not help his party's image. On Saturday, when he made his first appearance during a street rally, he faced a big crowd that yelled "Step down Abe!"
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