A candidate who is cautious about restarting idled nuclear power plants won the Oct. 16 Niigata gubernatorial election, defeating a rival backed by the ruling coalition. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) should take seriously the outcome of the election, in which the pros and cons of reactivating the utility's atomic power station in the prefecture was a key point of contention.
Ryuichi Yoneyama, 49, supported by the opposition Japanese Communist Party, Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party, beat former Nagaoka Mayor Tamio Mori, 67, backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito.
Mori had been expected to score an easy victory as the approval rating of the Abe Cabinet has been high and both the ruling coalition parties enjoy support from the business community and related organizations. Therefore, the results highlight prefectural residents' deep-rooted distrust in TEPCO, the operator of the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
The governing bloc's loss in the Niigata election follows its defeat in the July Kagoshima gubernatorial race, in which journalist Satoshi Mitazono, who called on Kyushu Electric Power Co. to stop operations at its Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in the prefecture during his campaigning, scored a victory.
The outcome of the Niigata race also apparently shows local residents' displeasure toward Mori, who failed to clarify his stance toward whether the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in the prefecture should be restarted, as well as their criticism of the Abe administration that is proactively trying to reactivate atomic power plants.
Close attention was focused on the latest election because incumbent Hirohiko Izumida abandoned seeking a fourth four-year term as governor.
The reason why Izumida gave up on running in the race remains unclear. However, Izumida has continued to demand TEPCO clarify the cause of the Fukushima nuclear crisis as a precondition for sitting at the negotiation table to discuss whether the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant should be reactivated. As such, TEPCO and the Abe government had expected that the retirement of Izumida would help facilitate the resumption of operations at nuclear plants.
As the election campaign went on, however, Yoneyama, who declared that he would take over Izumida's policy line, garnered growing support from local voters. Alarmed by the situation, LDP heavyweights, including Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, delivered campaign speeches and urged the local business community and industry organizations to vote for Mori.
Numerous voters in Niigata, who saw the LDP's desperate efforts to persuade local voters to vote for Mori, probably felt the old-fashioned culture of the LDP. During his campaigning, Mori emphasized his experience of serving as president of the Japan Association of City Mayors to demonstrate his close relations with the national government. However, he gave local voters the impression that he was hesitant to clarify his position on reactivation of atomic power plants.
Many challenges have been left unaddressed by Izumida, such as whether the evacuation plan for local residents in case of an accident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is appropriate. Yoneyama must address these challenges as he pledged during his campaigning.
The manner in which the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) approached the election was poor. The DP did not officially support Yoneyama although the party had initially planned to field him in the next House of Representatives election because the TEPCO union has strong influence within the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), which is a major supporting organization for the party. However, DP leader Renho did an about-face and delivered campaign speeches for Yoneyama in the final phase of the campaign apparently after being convinced that he would win.
The DP cannot win support from voters unless the party discusses its nuclear power policy and clarifies its stance on the issue.