A candidate backed by the ruling coalition won the tight Niigata gubernatorial election Sunday, boding well for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is facing cronyism allegations and declining approval ratings.
Hideyo Hanazumi, a 60-year-old former vice commandant at the Japan Coast Guard, defeated Chikako Ikeda, 57, a former prefectural assembly member endorsed by five opposition parties.
Voter turnout was 58.25 percent, up 5.20 points from the previous election, according to the local election committee. Hanazumi secured 546,670 votes against Ikeda’s 509,568.
The outcome is likely to be seen as a positive verdict on the government of Abe, who has been accused of cronyism in connection with a heavily discounted sale of state land as well as the granting of permission to a friend to open the first new veterinary school in Japan in a half century.
The race was also viewed as a prelude to the House of Councillors election in the summer of 2019, when opposition parties may try to field joint candidates in single-seat constituencies to better their chances against the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito.
Satoshi Annaka, a 40-year-old independent and former city assembly member from Gosen, Niigata, also ran in the election.
Ruling camp officials and people close to the prime minister hailed the election outcome, which came at a time when Abe is struggling to dispel the cronyism allegations and his public approval rate remains well below the disapproval rate in opinion polls.
“It was an election we absolutely needed to win. It is great news in terms of upcoming Diet affairs and Prime Minister Abe’s prospect of winning a third consecutive term in the LDP presidential election in September,” a source in the prime minister’s office said.
LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, the party’s No. 2 man, told reporters, “We will make our best endeavors in running the administration without being self-satisfied.”
Whether to consent to the resumption of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, one of the world’s largest nuclear complexes, was also a major issue, though both Hanazumi and Ikeda said during campaigning they would follow up on the outgoing governor’s process to verify the plant’s safety.
“The prefectural government will thoroughly carry out its own verification, and I will make the final decision as the leader,” Hanazumi told reporters.
Last December, the No. 6 and 7 reactors at the complex, which has a combined output capacity of 8.2 million kilowatts, cleared safety reviews under stricter regulations introduced in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Facing huge compensation payments and other costs stemming from the Fukushima disaster, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. is keen to resume operating the two reactors to improve its financial standing, but it needs the approval of the Niigata governor to do so.
The Abe government has been pushing to restart nuclear reactors that have cleared post-Fukushima safety reviews.
In a stump speech during the campaign, Hanazumi refrained from explicitly backing the restart of the nuclear plant, saying he will not allow the Kashiwazaki plant to come back online without the consent of the prefecture’s citizens.
Ikeda highlighted her anti-nuclear stance while campaigning.
Annaka called for the abolition of nuclear plants and stressed the need to address the issue of Japan’s declining population.
In an effort not to cast the election as a battle between the ruling bloc and the opposition, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party did not send senior officials to make campaign speeches on behalf of Hanazumi.
The election was held to fill the post left vacant by the resignation of Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, who stepped down in April after admitting he had a relationship with a woman that could “look to some as prostitution.” Yoneyama, who was elected in 2016 with the backing of several opposition parties, was reluctant to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant.