Tokyo voters to decide on nuclear energy

Gubernatorial candidates on opposite sides over issue

 

THE thorny question of whether Japan should ditch nuclear energy completely could decide who eventually wins the race for Tokyo governor which kicks off today.

The next 17 days are likely to be dominated by former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, who is calling for an immediate stop to nuclear energy use. His chief supporter and likewise anti-nuclear advocate is Mr Junichiro Koizumi, 72, who was premier from 2001 to 2006. Thirteen candidates are expected to stand in the Feb 9 election.

Mr Hosokawa's main rival is former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, who is backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and was initially thought to be a shoo-in for the election. But Mr Hosokawa's emergence from 15 years of political retirement has forced the LDP to go on the defensive.

Hailing from a well-known clan of feudal lords, Mr Hosokawa no longer commands the widespread public enthusiasm that he enjoyed when he helmed a coalition government in 1993, ending 38 years of continuous LDP rule.

But his trump card is Mr Koizumi, who remains wildly popular with voters more than seven years after leaving office and whose unsurpassed talent for making rally speeches and gift for producing snappy sound bites is feared by the LDP.

In 2005, he led the LDP to a landslide victory in a general election focused on his pet issue - privatisation of the postal service.

Since last year, Mr Koizumi has been calling vigorously for Japan to end its dependence on nuclear energy, to which many Japanese have become allergic after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. All of Japan's nuclear reactors are currently idle.

A recent report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch said a Hosokawa win could lead to a sharp increase in energy bills if power companies cannot restart their nuclear plants and are forced to pass higher costs to consumers. In addition, a Hosokawa victory may trim economic growth by 0.5 to 1 percentage point and also depress stock prices by up to 10 per cent, the report added.

Mr Hosokawa and Mr Koizumi have stressed that the Tokyo election will be fought between the "camp that believes Japan can develop without nuclear energy" and the camp that does not.

The latter is a reference to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose administration is moving to restart mothballed reactors and who is worried that the election could further deepen nationwide opposition to nuclear energy.

Reports say Mr Abe will not stump for Mr Masuzoe to avoid being seen publicly duelling with Mr Koizumi, who was his political mentor.

But the muckraking has already begun.

Critics, including government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, pointed out that Mr Hosokawa was forced to quit in April 1994 after barely nine months as prime minister over a 100 million yen loan from a trucking company.

At a press conference yesterday to formally announce his candidacy, Mr Hosokawa apologised for the loan, made 32 years ago before his election as governor of Kumamoto prefecture, saying it had long been fully repaid.

Mr Masuzoe has his own share of problems. He was expelled from the LDP in 2010 for criticising the party leadership and for wanting to form his own splinter group. Not surprisingly, many LDP lawmakers see no reason to support him.

Said Mr Shinjiro Koizumi, the former premier's second son and an LDP member: "I don't understand why the party is supporting someone it once sacked, or why Masuzoe seeks our support."

Gossip magazines reminded voters that Mr Masuzoe is thrice married and currently fighting a court case over maintenance for one of his three illegitimate children who suffers from a disability.

wengkin@sph.com.sg