Voters in Japan’s capital are electing the Tokyo city assembly amid concerns about health risks during the Olympic Games, due to open in three weeks’ time, as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
In Sunday’s ballot, 271 candidates are vying for 127 seats. There are 9.8 million eligible voters in the city, which has a population of nearly 14 million.
Opinion polls show that about 60% of respondents want the Games cancelled or postponed again. Behind the fears is the slow vaccination rollout, with only about 10% of the population fully vaccinated.
Exit polls by public broadcaster NHK TV showed a tight race between Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First party and the ruling Liberal Democrats, the party of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Tomin First was projected to win 20 to 35 seats, with 25 to 43 for the Liberal Deomcrats.
Ms Koike went off sick two weeks ago, citing exhaustion, and was not seen in public until Friday. Her routine role would have been to campaign for her party, the biggest with 46 seats in the assembly heading into the election.
Neither Ms Koike nor her party pushed for a cancellation, but instead called for the Games to go ahead without fans in the stands. The organising committee has said a decision on attendance restrictions is still being considered.
The only major party clearly advocating for the Olympic to be cancelled is the Communist Party, which holds 18 seats.
The Democrats, a leading opposition party, raised questions about the Olympics but pushed other issues in their campaign, such as economic aid for those affected by Covid-19.
The Olympics, starting on July 23, bring together 15,000 athletes and more than 50,000 officials, including corporate sponsors and dignitaries, as well as 70,000 volunteers.
Some medical experts have warned it could become a Covid superspreader event, warning that new cases in Tokyo, now totalling several hundred, could shoot up to thousands.
Olympic team members and officials are more likely than the Japanese public to have been fully vaccinated.
The ruling Liberal Democrats, the party of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, which previously had 25 seats in the Tokyo assembly, are likely to increase their representation as the momentum of Ms Koike’s party has fizzled, according to Japanese media reports. But most people are still undecided.
Ms Koike, a former news anchor, became Tokyo’s first woman governor in 2016, and was re-elected to another four-year term in a 2020 landslide.
She is a proponent of gender equality, comparing the situation in Japan to “an iron plate”, rather than “a glass ceiling”.
Analysts say Ms Koike, previously a member of parliament, may be contemplating a return to national politics. Parliamentary elections are expected later this year.