(Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s favored candidate won Sunday’s election for governor of Tokyo, quashing efforts to make the vote a referendum on Abe’s pro-nuclear energy policy nearly three years after the Fukushima disaster
The widely-expected victory by former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe comes as a relief for Abe, who had suffered a rare setback in another local election last month.
The 65-year-old Masuzoe, backed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, was the winner by a wide margin, taking more than the combined total of his two closest rivals in the race to run Tokyo, a city of 13.3 million people.
Masuzoe’s most prominent rival was former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, who came out of retirement to run, and with support from charismatic ex-premier Junichiro Koizumi had opposed Abe’s atomic energy policy.
“I will make Tokyo the world’s No. 1 city,” Masuzoe told supporters. “I want to work on social welfare, disaster preparedness, the economy and especially to make the Tokyo 2020 Olympics a success.”
Hosokawa came in third after lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya, who also opposes nuclear power. Turnout was 46.14 percent, the third-lowest in history.
Former air force chief of staff Toshio Tamogami, who resigned in 2008 after denying in an essay that Japan was the aggressor in World War Two, came in fourth. The pro-nuclear power Tamogami heads the nationalist group “Gambare Nippon!” (“Stand Firm! Japan”).
Masuzoe had not made energy policy a prime focus, although he said Japan should reduce its dependence on nuclear power in the medium to long term. After his victory was announced, he reiterated that stance, adding he wanted to raise the share of renewable energy sources in Tokyo’s electricity supply.
Abe welcomed Masuzoe’s victory and said the two of them would now join forces to bring off a splendid 2020 Olympics.
Public trust in nuclear energy in Japan was battered by the March 2011 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co Inc’s Fukushima nuclear power plant north of Tokyo, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
Surveys have shown that most Japanese voters favor abandoning nuclear power, either immediately or in the longer term, but they also indicate that energy policy is not as important an issue for voters as jobs and the economy, an ageing population and welfare. Analysts said Hosokawa and Koizumi had failed to gain traction for their single-issue campaign.
Both ex-premiers supported nuclear power while they were in office but changed their stance after the Fukushima disaster.
However, Masuzoe’s win is unlikely to mean smooth sailing for Abe’s efforts to restart reactors shut down after the Fukushima accident. This is because of delays in safety checks by a new atomic regulator and the need to persuade host communities to agree to the government’s plans.
The 72-year-old Koizumi, one of Japan’s most popular leaders during his 2001-2006 term and once Abe’s mentor, vowed in a statement to continue the fight. The promise could mean he still poses a headache for Abe, since nuclear power is likely to be a focus in some local elections later this year.