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Voting starts in closely watched Tokyo election

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ERIC TALMADGE | June 22, 2013 11:34 PM EST | AP

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TOKYO — Tokyo voters began electing a city assembly on Sunday in a contest that is being closely watched as an indicator of how Japan's major parties will fare in parliamentary polls next month.

The election will decide 127 seats in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly. Japan's strongest party, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democrats, was expected to take an overall majority with its junior partner, a Buddhist-backed conservative group. Abe, who has focused on strengthening Japan's economy and defense policies, has a high national approval rating.

The election is the biggest vote before the nation goes to the polls on July 21 to elect members of Parliament's upper house. Initial turnout was low, according to Japanese media reports, although the major parties campaigned heavily in the run-up to the vote.

Surveys conducted by Japanese newspapers suggested Abe's party could win as many as 50 seats, which, with its partner, the Komeito, would make it the ruling bloc in the assembly.

Since taking office in December, Abe has focused on the economy. But his wider agenda includes revising Japan's pacifist constitution to allow a stronger military.

Also being watched was the Japan Restoration Party, a new group led by Toru Hashimoto, who is the mayor of Japan's second-largest metropolis, Osaka.

Though Hashimoto is hoping to build his party into a nationwide political power, he has drawn fire for his recent remarks that sex slavery by Japan's Imperial Army before and during World War II was a "necessary" wartime evil, and for suggesting U.S. military patronize adult entertainment to help reduce sex crimes committed by American troops.

If his party does badly in the Tokyo elections, he will be under pressure to resign as the party chief.