The establishment candidate backed by pro-nuclear Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe romped home in yesterday’s election for governor of Tokyo against two anti-nuclear opponents.
The poll for chief executive of one of the world’s biggest cities had been seen as a referendum on atomic power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
However, livelihood issues appeared to play a bigger role in the election, which saw an emphatic victory by Yoichi Masuzoe — a former TV personality and one-time Cabinet minister.
Only about one-third of eligible voters cast their ballots, media reported, down by about 10 percentage points from the last election.
The city’s 13 million inhabitants had been hit with the heaviest snowfall in nearly half a century on Saturday, and, despite a rapid thaw on polling day, many streets remained treacherous.
“I want to make Tokyo the No. 1 city of the world, in areas including disaster prevention, welfare and the economy,” Masuzoe told reporters as the scale of his victory became apparent. “And above all, I will make the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games successful.”
Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University said Masuzoe’s win would provide a boost to Abe, and strengthen his hand on nuclear matters.
“The anti-nuclear agenda is a very difficult one to achieve,” he said.
The vote had been triggered by the resignation of the previous governor, a policy wonk who admitted to political naivete after accepting an undeclared ￥50 million (US$500,000) from a scandal-mired hospital magnate.
None of the major political parties had fielded a candidate, but all had swung behind one of the major players. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party backed Masuzoe even though he left the party a few years ago.
Like Abe, he has said that Japan needs to switch its nuclear reactors back on. All of them are idled at present amid public nervousness in a country badly scarred by the disaster at Fukushima.
Opinion polls show a significant number of Japanese oppose nuclear power, but the two main anti-atomic candidates failed to gain enough traction to overturn Masuzoe’s determined drive to talk about bread-and-butter issues like the economy and welfare.
Former Japanese prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, did not manage to connect with voters, despite having the high-profile backing of popular former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Exit polls by major media showed he had been pushed into third place by renowned lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya, 67, who was also firmly anti-nuclear.
Pundits had suggested that a big vote for the two of them, even if Masuzoe won, would make life more difficult for Abe in his drive to get Japan’s nuclear reactors back on line.
“I voted for Hosokawa because I think the most important thing today is to get rid of nuclear power,” Shu Ohara, 35, said outside a polling station.
However, many voters had more immediate concerns when they went into the polling booth.
A 72-year-old woman said she voted for Masuzoe because he appeared to care more about the plight of the elderly.
“It’s scary to see the balance in my bankbook falling,” she said as she left a polling station.
“I tried to resume working some time ago, but was told [by a Tokyo city official] that it would deprive young people of jobs,” the discontented pensioner said.
Like the rest of Japan, Tokyo must provide affordable care for the growing number of elderly, but balance that with maintaining its appeal to the younger generation who make it a vibrant commercial and cultural hub.
Between 2007 and 2009, Masuzoe served as health, labor and welfare minister, initially under Abe’s first, short-lived administration. He now has the backing of the prime minister’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
The governor of Tokyo presides over Japan’s most populated and wealthiest prefecture. Its annual ￥13 trillion budget rivals that of Sweden and it has 165,000 people on its payroll.
The new governor will likely spend much of his time preparing for the 2020 Olympics, with huge construction projects and the renovation of the city’s aging infrastructure already under way.