Tokyo Votes for Governor in Race That’s Key to PM’s Fortunes

(Bloomberg) -- Tokyo voters went to the polls Sunday to elect a governor in a race that poses a test for struggling Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose ruling party is backing the incumbent over a prominent challenger from the opposition camp.

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Governor Yuriko Koike, 71, has been leading in opinion surveys, putting her on the inside track to win a third term. That would come as a relief for Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party, which has unofficially supported her and not fielded its own candidate. Voting runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with projected results expected to be announced shortly after.

Koike’s main challenger is Renho Saito, 56, who is backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party. She is polling second and has attacked Koike’s ties to the LDP amid a long-running slush fund scandal in the ruling party that’s been a factor in eroding support for Kishida.

As of 11 a.m., the estimated voter turnout was 12.84%, up 2.29 percentage points compared with the same point in the previous election four years ago, NHK reported.

The governorship of Tokyo is one of the highest profile jobs in Japanese politics, and it’s unusual to see two women vying for the post. The governor oversees a metropolis whose economy equaled that of the Netherlands in size in 2021, and whose 14 million-strong population makes it bigger than Belgium.

The most prominent man in the race is Shinji Ishimaru, a 41-year-old former mayor in Hiroshima. He has vowed to rebuild politics and sought support among younger voters.

A win by Renho, who generally goes by her given name, or another challenger would add to Kishida’s woes and further undermine his chances of staying in the top spot of the LDP when it holds its leadership race in September. The winner of the party vote is all but assured to become prime minister, given the LDP’s dominance in parliament.

Kishida is battling a support rate at its lowest levels since he took office in 2021 and rivals are signaling they intend to challenge him in September, with that vote possibly being held on Sept. 20, Mainichi Shimbun reported.

A record 56 people are running to be Tokyo’s governor. Problems such as the low fertility rate and disaster resilience have taken center stage in the election, overshadowing Koike’s ambitions to restore the capital’s status as a global financial hub. The fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime — fell below 1 in Tokyo for the first time last year, with the national figure hitting a record low of 1.2.

Koike, a former LDP lawmaker, gave up a seat in parliament to launch her first successful run for governor in 2016. She used the position as a launchpad for a new party that at one point seemed poised to challenge the LDP of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

She sailed to a second term in office in 2020, guiding the capital through the pandemic and during the Summer Olympics hosted by Tokyo. While the prominence of her party has waned, Koike has found ways to work with the conservative LDP.

Koike has said initiatives like subsidizing education have kept the fertility rate from falling further and she has pledged to offer more government assistance. Renho has emphasized improving pay for young people to lower the financial hurdles to marriage and starting a family. Ishimaru has vowed to rid the capital of pork-barrel spending.

In a further opportunity for voters to pass judgment on the LDP, Tokyo will on the same day hold nine special elections for the Tokyo metropolitan assembly, with the ruling party fielding candidates in eight of them.

--With assistance from Yuki Hagiwara and Shamim Adam.

(Updates with early estimate of voter turnout in 4th paragraph)

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