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National crisis helps Ishihara stay at helm

by Tomoyuki Tachikawa

Kyodo News

Growing hopes for the incumbent’s leadership amid Japan’s worst postwar crisis helped Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara score a victory in the gubernatorial election Sunday, a month after the March 11 killer quake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region.

Key challengers in the race failed to give voters the impression they could cope with the natural and nuclear disasters better than Ishihara, allowing him to secure his fourth four-year term. The victory by Ishihara, considered an outspoken and strong leader, also underscored concerns over the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose leadership has been called into question, particularly in relation to the handling of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The Tokyo gubernatorial election had been initially seen as a test of Ishihara’s political maneuvering during 12 years in office over matters such as financial problems at ShinGinko Tokyo, his trouble brainchild bank, and the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market.

But such issues were upstaged by campaign talk over disaster preparedness in Tokyo, following the catastrophic quake and tsunami in which over 27,000 people died or disappeared in northeastern and eastern Japan, and the country’s worst nuclear crisis.

Ishihara, 78, a hawk backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, outpaced his rivals, including former Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, 53, and Miki Watanabe, 51, founder and former chairman of restaurant chain operator Watami Co.

Voter turnout was 57.8 percent in Tokyo, slightly up from 54.35 percent in the previous election four years ago, according to the Tokyo metropolitan election management committee.

With all the votes counted, Ishihara won nearly 2.62 million, or about 43 percent of those cast and some 924,000 votes more than runnerup Higashikokubaru.

During the campaign, Ishihara, who has served three four-year terms since 1999, stressed his achievements while in office and emphasized his policies to address disasters. He also toured quake-hit areas, including Miyagi Prefecture.

Such moves have projected an image of a leader who can grapple with the current crisis, though he came under fire before the election for his remark that the March 11 disaster was “divine punishment.”

Meanwhile, Higashikokubaru, who criticized Ishihara’s re-election bid due to his advanced age and argued there would be adverse effects from someone being re-elected too many times, stressed his performance as Miyazaki governor for four years since 2007 and pledged to revive disaster-hit Japan from Tokyo.

The comedian-turned-politician also emphasized he has no political shackles, but failed to show a sharp contrast with Ishihara’s policies and increase voter support.

“It was too late to demonstrate (to voters) the distinctions” between his and Ishihara’s policies, said one of Higashikokubaru’s campaign officials.

Watanabe, who promised to make use of his business expertise as Tokyo governor if elected, was supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members of the Democratic Party of Japan, but the DPJ’s national headquarters did not participate in the election campaign, ostensibly as they placed emphasis on responding to the ongoing disaster.