In boost to Abe, Masuzoe to run Tokyo

Tags: Op-ed
In boost to Abe, Masuzoe to run Tokyo
AP
STRONG STANCE: Former Japanese health minister Yoichi Masuzoe celebrates his gubernatorial election victory, by defeating two candidates who had promised to end nuclear power, at his election office in Tokyo on February 9
Last Sunday, Tokyo elected its new mayor. The victor in a many-cornered contest turned out to be prime minister Shinzo Abe’s man, former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe. The 65-year-old Masuzoe received around 2,11 million votes, more than the combined total of his nearest two rivals. An independent, supported by the ruling coalition, Masuzoe promised his voters that he will make Tokyo the world’s number one city in such fields as disaster prevention, social welfare, business and education. Because of the most severe snowfall in over 20 years that swept over the capital on the weekend, voter participation was particularly low, with only a third of the electorate going to the polls.

The election had become necessary because the incumbent mayor, Naoki Inose, had to resign after only one year in office because in his election campaign he had received a donation from a scandal-tainted hospital chain. Inose, who had been promoted by long time mayor and renowned novelist Shintaro Ishihara, had been successful in winning the Summer Olympic Games of 2020 for Tokyo. However, this achievement did not help him in his troubles, not least because a lot of Tokyoites are not particularly enthusiastic about their city staging the Olympic Games.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures. Each one of it is run by a popularly elected governor. Tokyo, the capital of Japan and the centre of the Greater Tokyo Area, the world’s largest metropolitan area, is of course the by far most important prefecture of Japan. Its governor is also the mayor. Because of its special status, the elections for the mayoralty of Tokyo is an event of national significance. This time, this was even more the case than in earlier times. First of all, prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had taken office in late 2012, faced his first popularity test. Secondly, the battle for the Tokyo mayoralty had very much become a contest between forces that want Japan to once and for all close all nuclear power stations, and the position of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and prime minister Abe that is in favour of nuclear power.

In March 2011, a giant earthquake and tsunami destroyed vast swaths of Tohoku and crippled the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The nuclear disaster also afflicted Tokyo which in air distance is only some 250 kilometres away from the stricken plant. Since the disaster, Tokyoites have become increasingly angry with Tepco, the company running the Fukushima power plant and the sole power supplier to the capital. People have been upset about the incompetent management of the crisis by Tepco, which often hid important facts from the public. Furthermore, people feel that they have been misled by the government and by Tepco which repeatedly had stressed that the closure of all nuclear plants would lead to serious power shortages. Nothing of this has happened.

The election got a lot of colour when former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa entered the ring. The 76-year-old descendant of a famous feudal house had the backing of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi who had led the government between 2001 and 2006 had given his explicit support to Hosokawa because of his opposition to nuclear power. During his time as leader of the LDP and prime minister Koizumi had been extraordinarily popular and he took his retirement from active politics on his own volition. However, the clear defeat of Hosokawa in the mayoral elections is an indication that the public did not appreciate the return of Koizumi to the political platform and to campaign against his very own party.

While the opponents of nuclear power who have been organising protest marches and who have enhanced the usually weak engagement for civic issues will continue with their agitation, prime minister Abe can take great comfort from the election result. First of all, he will interpret the voters’ verdict as a rejection of a total abandonment of nuclear power. The government has been concerned that if the current closure of all nuclear power plants in the country becomes permanent, both the security and the external payment situation of Japan will suffer. It is no secret that the sharp deterioration in Japan’s foreign trade balance is a result of massively increased imports of fossil fuels that are required to replace nuclear power.

Beyond the nuclear issue, the clear victory of the candidate that was supported by Abe’s coalition government will be used by the prime minister as a vindication of his political course. Abe has been unusually bold on two fronts and has been storming ahead in his first year of office. His economic policies known as “Abenomics” intend to once and for all break the deflationary trends that had been plaguing Japan during the past two decades. The reactions of the financial markets were mostly positive. In addition, Abe has been playing the nationalist card, repeatedly and strongly irritating the Chinese and the Koreans. His stance against Beijing is particularly forceful. Without any doubt, Abe will use the result of Tokyo’s mayoral election to claim that as a whole, his policies have a strong backing amongst the electorate.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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