Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's party won the largest number of seats in Sunday';s Tokyo election but fell short of the majority it expected. Photo: AFP / Masanori Genko / The Yomiuri Shimbun

As the countdown to the Tokyo Summer Olympics accelerates, the troubled Games and the Covid-19 pandemic are casting big shadows over Japan’s politics.

On Sunday, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its Komeito coalition partner won the largest number of seats at the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election. The conservative-Buddhist coalition replaced Tomin First no Kai (“Tokyoites First”) as the leading player in the city’s 127-seat assembly.

The conservative ruling party and their Buddhist partner party saw their seats climb to 33 in the assembly, up from 25. Tokyoites First was the big loser, seeing its seats fall from 46 to 31. However, the LDP-Komeito winners still fell far short of their pre-election aim of winning a majority of 64 seats.

Tokyoites First, which won the second-largest number of seats, was founded by current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a former member of ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet and a top-flight defector from the LDP. Leftist parties gained modest traction but still fell behind the two conservative machines.

The results come ahead of a trilogy of key national events in the next three months: The Tokyo Games; the end of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s term as leader of the LDP; and a national election for the Lower House of the Diet.

How to call it?

Sunday’s results defy clear analyses. Several media see the winning coalition’s failure to clinch a clear majority as the key takeaway. The battleground, however, was clear. According to exit polls taken by Kyoto News Agency, Tokyo voted largely on the various parties’ approach to the Olympic Games.

LDP-Komeito had campaigned to hold a safe Olympics, while Tokyoites First had called for a spectator-free Olympics. For Tokyo voters, neither seems to have been a winning proposition.

Yet leftist parties could hardly claim victory.

The Japanese Communist Party, which had called for an outright cancelation of the Games, added a single win, increasing its seats from 18 to 19.

Meanwhile, the main national opposition in the Diet, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which had demanded a postponement of the Games, saw its seats more than double. However, as it only held seven seats prior to Sunday, it remains a distant fourth presence in the Tokyo Assembly with 15 seats.

The Asahi Shimbun wrote that voters were disenchanted with the two main parties over slow vaccine rollouts in the capital as well as the decision to proceed with the Olympics.

The Yomiuri Shimbun assessed that the ruling coalition had suffered an effective loss in Sunday’s election by not securing a majority. “This is an unexpected result,” a member of the LDP executive committee told the newspaper. “If things continue like this, we’ll be in trouble in the Lower House election.”

Even so, the two key players in the Tokyo legislature remained conservative. (Albeit, Tokyoites First is a local, not a national presence.)

What next?

All eyes – hopeful and fearful – are now on the Olympics.

For a country that had after the hugely successful “trial run” of the Rugby World Cup in 2019 confidently anticipated a tourism spending bonanza and a national brand upgrade from the Games, those high expectations have plummeted.

A vaccination center at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. About 90,000 people are due to be inoculated there by mid-August. Photo: AFP / Takehiko Suzuki / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The outlook has turned gloomy. For a jittery and divided nation set to hold an Olympics within a pandemic bubble, absent the customary international street carnival ambience of the Games, the best possible outcome may be disaster avoidance.

The Olympics will run from July 23 to August 8. Prime Minister Suga’s leadership of the LDP expires on September 30. A general election for the Lower House of the Diet must be called by October 21.

Suga is widely expected to call the election before his term as party leader expires.

The two big issues in the public mind – the Games and the pandemic – are inextricably linked. This makes the outcome of the Games a central issue before Japan goes to the polls.

Will it take place disaster-free, winning a sigh of relief in Japan and kudos from the global community? Or could it become as many fear a super-spreader event, dooming “Tokyo 2020” to ignominy.

The popularity of Suga and his cabinet is wobbly. June polls saw their approval ratings at 44%, a slight uptick attributed to a recent acceleration in vaccinations.

Still, assuming that a game-changing event does not tar the Olympics, conventional wisdom is that the current conservative coalition will emerge victorious in the national plebiscite in the autumn.

“The LDP saw the Tokyo election as a failure, a kind of disappointment, but I am cautious about the upcoming national election being another failure for the LDP,” Lim Eun-jung, a Japan watcher and international relations expert at South Korea’s Kongju National University told Asia Times.

“Overthrowing the existing ruling coalition is not easy in the Japanese system: it is hard to expect that kind of change.”