NEWS
07/02/2017 05:31 EDT | Updated 07/02/2017 05:40 EDT

Tokyo governor's party heads for big win in city election

TOKYO — The new party of the Japanese capital's populist governor appeared headed for a landslide 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 the party fielded, Japanese television stations reported Sunday evening after the voting ended. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party was expected to win anywhere from 13 to 39 seats, possibly falling below its record low of 38 seats, according to national broadcaster NHK.

Although official results were not yet out, Koike declared victory, saying her party had won enough seats to become the No. 1 party in the assembly.

"We are certain to become the leading party," she said. "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 Liberal Democrats, who entered the election with 57 assembly seats, fielded 60 candidates.

The result of the Tokyo assembly election has in the past set the tone for national elections. Koike is rumoured to be eyeing a return to parliament to run for prime minister.

Official results of the assembly election are expected by Monday morning.

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 per cent.

Koike, 64, had shifted parties until settling with the LDP in 2002 and since held key party and Cabinet posts, including defence minister. She angered party seniors when she abruptly ran for Tokyo's governor last year, but had never officially left 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, Defence 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-Defence 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 but refused 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 the 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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