TOKYO, July 12, 2009 (AFP) - Voters went to the polls in Tokyo on Sunday for the capital's assembly elections, seen as an important test of embattled prime minister Taro Aso ahead of a general election.
Aso's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its sole coalition partner, New Komeito, are aiming to defy opinion polls to maintain their majority in the assembly of the world's largest metropolitan city.
Public support for Aso, who has been in office less than a year, has waned considerably after several controversial resignations by ministers and a series of party defeats in key local elections.
"The LDP has practical accomplishments," LDP secretary-general Hiroyuki Hosoda told voters on the eve of the polls. "It is the LDP which should develop the metropolitan government further. The LDP will work hard and beat the odds."
An opinion poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun last weekend showed that 16.9 percent of Tokyo residents surveyed said they would vote for LDP candidates against 29.4 percent supporting opposition candidates.
Nevertheless, Aso, who has to call the general election by mid-September, has argued that defeat to the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the Tokyo assembly would have little meaning in a wider context.
"There is no direct link between the Tokyo assembly election and national politics," Aso was quoted by Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura as saying on Saturday.
But many pundits say the coalition's failure to secure a majority in Sunday's poll would fuel demands among LDP lawmakers for Aso's immediate resignation so that a new leader can take the helm into general elections.
A total of 221 candidates, including 58 fielded each by the LDP and the DPJ, are vying for the 127 seats of the assembly, seeking support of 16.6 million eligible voters across the sprawling capital.
Before the election, the ruling coalition had 70 seats -- 48 to the LDP and the rest to New Komeito -- against 34 held by the DPJ in the assembly.
The polls close 8:00 pm (1100 GMT), with results expected late Sunday or early Monday. As of 2:00 pm, voter turnout stood at 25.81 percent, up 4.72 points from the previous election, officials said.
"This Tokyo election is the beginning of the path to a power change," said Tomoko Amatsuji, a 70-year-old office worker who voted for an opposition candidate. "I'm not satisfied with the government. It's time to see a change."
DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama has warned that the opposition camp, which controls the upper house, would submit a motion of no-confidence against Aso as early as Monday.
Opinion polls show the LDP, having lost the upper house in 2007, is likely to lose its large majority in the lower house to the DPJ in the upcoming general election, ending a half century of nearly unbroken rule.