Abe-Backed Candidate Masuzoe Wins Vote for Tokyo Governor

Tokyo voters elected a former health minister backed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as governor after a race that one opponent sought to turn into a referendum on nuclear power.

The victory by Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, may smooth the path to re-starting some of Japan’s nuclear reactors, all 48 of which are off line for safety reviews after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami sparked meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. Their mothballing has forced Japan to step up fuel imports, widening the current account deficit to a record.

Masuzoe secured a convincing win over the competition, including 76-year-old former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who emerged from retirement to campaign against nuclear power. Masuzoe won around 2.1 million votes, followed by the former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Kenji Utsunomiya, on around 983,000 votes and Hosokawa on about 956,000, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government website.

Tokyo residents struggled to the polls through a record snowfall that national broadcaster NHK said left at least 12 dead nationwide, with the snow also disrupting flights, train services and power lines. Turnout for the vote was around 46 percent, which NHK reported as the third lowest for such an election.

While most Japanese people say they oppose restarting the nuclear plants, the issue took a back seat to jobs and welfare in the Tokyo campaign. The city will host the Olympics in 2020.

Last month Abe’s government approved a plan for Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric to rebuild, based upon reopening Asia’s largest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, in Niigata prefecture on the western coast. Masuzoe has called for improving safety at the country’s nuclear plants, rather than shuttering them, and he pledged to boost renewable energy use in Tokyo to 20 percent from six percent of total power consumption.

National Clout

“I have high expectations for Governor Masuzoe preparing the city for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” Abe told a parliamentary committee. “Tokyo is also a great consumer of energy and it is extremely important from a national energy policy perspective that Tokyo make full use of technological innovation to reduce energy consumption.”

While the 13-million-strong Japanese capital has an economy bigger than that of Indonesia, accounting for about a fifth of Japan’s output, it suffers like the rest of the country from an aging population. Masuzoe, a former academic who turned to politics after publishing a book about caring for his mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s, has pledged to strengthen social welfare.

“I want to make Tokyo the world’s best city in terms of welfare, disaster prevention and the economy,” Masuzoe told reporters after exit polls were released last night. “Above all I want to make the Tokyo 2020 Olympics a success.”

The city’s economic clout has given previous leaders influence in shaping policy, even as the Tokyo governor has no direct role in national politics. Former Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s 2012 announcement that he planned to buy a chain of uninhabited East China Sea islands disputed with China and build on them spurred then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to have the national government purchase them.

The election was called when previous incumbent, writer and historian Naoki Inose, who oversaw the city’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics, resigned in December after it emerged he had borrowed 50 million yen ($490,000) from the head of a hospital group.

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