Source AP ©

Japan: ruling party gives boost to prime minister

The Premier of Japan Shinzo Abe got a great boost ahead of parliamentary elections in July for the victories by Tokyo's nationalist governor and other ruling party-backed gubernatorial candidates.

The victories appeared to offer renewed support for the ruling party, which has sagged sharply in popularity polls since Abe - a nationalist pushing a more assertive foreign policy and patriotism in the schools - took office in September.

Shintaro Ishihara, backed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, roared to a third term as Tokyo governor with 51 percent of the vote on Sunday, easily defeating his nearest competitor, who garnered slightly less than 31 percent.

Ruling party candidates in other areas gained three governorships, while six LDP-backed incumbents won re-election. Three opposition incumbents and one opposition challenger also edged out competitors.

"I hope that this landslide in Tokyo will create momentum" toward the July elections, Abe told reporters on Monday. "This resounding victory in Tokyo is very significant," he said.

The LDP, however, fared less well in lower-profile races. In 44 local assembly elections, LDP victories fell to a record low 1,212 seats, down from 1,309 in the 2003 elections, while the opposition Democrats advanced to 375 from 230. The LDP won only one of four mayoral elections.

Abe needs all the support he can get. His public approval rating currently hovers at around 40 percent, a drastic tumble from the 70 percent when he took office. Approval has been whittled away by a scandal involving his agriculture minister and other issues.

Abe faces a crucial electoral test in July with elections for the upper house of parliament.

The LDP holds a commanding majority in the more powerful lower house, but a defeat in the elections for the largely ceremonial upper house could sap Abe's support within the party and prompt a search for his replacement.

The highest-profile race Sunday was for Tokyo governor. The campaign by Ishihara, co-author of the book "The Japan that Can Say No" and an outspoken nationalist, was considered something of a bellwether for the July elections.

A 74-year-old former novelist who was once considered potential prime minister material, Ishihara won re-election in 2003 with an astounding 70 percent of the vote.

In the end, Ishihara - who ran as an independent but was backed by the ruling coalition - won easily Sunday, tapping widespread support for his straight-speaking style and campaign against air pollution in the crowded capital.

Shiro Asano, backed by the opposition Democratic Party, came in with a distant 31 percent of the vote. Ishihara's slip in support was attributed to voter discontent over allegations of cronyism and expense fund abuse.

Asano, 59, a former governor of Miyagi in northern Japan, vowed to be Ishihara's antithesis while focusing on social welfare in the rapidly aging society.

Other candidates for governor of the capital, with 12.5 million people and an economy bigger than Australia's, included an eccentric inventor, a street musician, a taxi driver and a fortune teller.

Voter turnout in Tokyo was 54.35 percent, higher than the 44.9 percent recorded in the 2003 elections, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

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