Masuzoe new Tokyo governor, defeats anti-nuclear rivals

Masuzoe new Tokyo governor, defeats anti-nuclear rivals

Despite efforts to make Tokyo’s gubernatorial election a referendum on nuclear energy, Yoichi Masuzoe won by focusing on more basic economic issues. This reflects a desire to see “Abenomics” restore lost prosperity and highlights the challenge in restarting the nuclear reactors.

With the backing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Yoichi Masuzoe decisively won Tokyo’s gubernatorial election on February 9th. The two major challengers to Masuzoe had sought to make the election a vote on role of nuclear power in Japan.

Rival candidate Morihiro Hosokawa aggressively campaigned against restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors. Hosokawa’s efforts to focus solely on the nuclear issue had earlier been boosted by the support of the political heavyweight and charismatic Junichiro Koizumi. Together, they had argued for Tokyo to permanently reject the use of nuclear generated energy, which directly contradicted current Prime Minister Abe’s goal of restarting reactors.

But Masuzoe garnered over 2.1 million votes – more than doubling up on Hosokawa’s 956,000 – by focusing on more basic social welfare issues and on preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Despite this win by Masuzoe over the anti-nuclear opposition, the Japanese government still faces an uphill battle in convincing the public that the economic gains of nuclear power generation are worth the risks.

Challenges since the Fukushima disaster

In March of 2011, a tsunami knocked out the Fukushima power plant, leading to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors. Since that time, the Japanese government and the primary electric provider TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) have struggled to supervise the clean up and stabilization of the disaster site. The disaster prompted the Japanese government to shut down all fifty of Japanese nuclear power plants.

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, nuclear generation represented 26 percent of all power generation in Japan. Without this important source of domestic energy, Japan has increasingly relied on the import of fossil fuels like oil and liquified natural gas (LNG). The US Energy Information Administration estimates that this has cost the top ten utilities $30 billion over the last two years and cost Japan hundreds of billions in total fuel imports.

With the depreciation of the yen due to “Abenomics”, energy imports have become progressively more expensive and have damaged Japan’s trade balance. In recent 2013 numbers, the current account posted a 31.5 percent year over year decline to a nearly three decade low (although it remains a surplus). Imports totaled 77 trillion yen, another record.

While some of the record import numbers stem from higher demand, energy imports have played a heavy role. For example, overall LNG imports jumped 24 percent from 2010 (pre Fukushima) to 2012. A smaller current account surplus coupled with an increasing debt to GDP ratio could raise questions about the ability of Japan to finance its debt. This is a particularly sensitive issue now as Prime Minister Abe has tried to add fiscal and monetary stimulus to the economy.

Abenomics and nuclear power

Given this background, many looked to the Tokyo elections as an indication of how voters viewed the nuclear issue. While Masuzoe is not anti-nuclear, he does favor the gradual long-term transition away from nuclear to other renewables. Abe’s hand should be strengthened by the defeat of two explicitly anti-nuclear opponents in the important district of Tokyo. But Masuzoe’s decision not to engage solely on the nuclear issue demonstrates that for Tokyo’s voters, the link between nuclear power generation and economic revitalization is not strong.

Voters continue to be against restarting nuclear power generation, doubting the ability of the government and TEPCO to reliable and safely manage Japan’s power plants. While Tokyo’s election showed that voters would not vote solely on this issue, pressure remains on Abe to convince the public that Abenomics also needs nuclear power generation to help it succeed. The continuing negative headlines from Fukushima mean that focusing heavily on this could be risky for Abe.

But Tokyo’s election seems to indicate there is room for a transition plan from nuclear to other renewables. Abe needs to show that the government has firm and effective supervision over Fukushima and that it can apply those lessons to make other nuclear plants safer. If he does that, he might be able to argue for partially restarting nuclear power generation.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Ned Pagliarulo

Ned Pagliarulo works for a Japanese press company, reporting on economics and government statistics. Ned received a BA in History with a minor in Japanese from Georgetown University in 2012.