(Bloomberg) — Tokyo will decide this weekend whether to re-elect a governor supported by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party or pick an opposition-backed challenger, in what will amount to a fresh test for the struggling premier. 

At stake in the unusual female-dominated race is one of the highest profile posts in Japanese politics. 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.

A win by incumbent Yuriko Koike on July 7 would be a relief for Kishida and his party, which has provided unofficial support for her campaign. A victory for Renho Saito, who has attacked Koike’s links with the LDP and its long-running slush fund scandal, would add to a series of election losses for Kishida and further undermine his chances of staying on in September’s party leadership election. 

Weekend polls showed Koike, 71, is leading with backing from supporters of the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito. In second place is Renho, 56, who generally goes by her given name and is backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party as well as the Japanese Communist Party. Shinji Ishimaru, the former mayor of a city in Hiroshima, and the most prominent man in a field of 56 candidates, is making strides among younger voters. He is 41.

“I was angered by the LDP’s problems with money, politics and slush funds,” Renho said at a press conference in Tokyo on June 19. “I want clean politics.” A former minister and one-time opposition leader, she is known for her attacks on what she regards as wasteful public spending. 

Koike, a former LDP lawmaker who swept to office as the first female governor in 2016, used the position as a launchpad for a new party that at one point seemed poised to topple then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since her bid for national power failed, she’s largely reconciled with the conservative LDP, while defying them on some issues, including by providing official recognition for same-sex couples. 

“I have received very enthusiastic calls from conservative voters,” Koike, who is running for a third term, said at the same press conference. “I hope to receive the broad and strong support of many people.”

A poll carried out by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper June 29-30 found 55.3% of respondents said they approved of her performance since she took office eight years ago, while 44.7% said they disapproved. 

Problems such as the low fertility rate and disaster resilience have taken center stage in the election, overshadowing Koike’s ambitions to restore the city’s status as a global financial hub. The fertility rate — the average number of children borne by 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 has said initiatives like subsidizing education have kept the rate from falling further and has pledged to offer more government assistance, such as funding for epidurals for women in labor, which are currently an unusual procedure. Renho has emphasized improving pay for young people to lower the financial hurdles to marriage and starting a family. Ishimaru has vowed to rebuild politics and 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.

The LDP has kept its support for Koike unofficial, as Kishida struggles to mollify a public angered by the slush fund scandal. With his voter support at its lowest since he took office in 2021, potential rivals are emerging ahead of the leadership vote in September. Even voter-friendly measures such as a tax rebate and additional utility subsidies have failed to revive public approval. 

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