The emergence of Morihiro Hosokawa as a potential candidate could be a game-changer for the Tokyo gubernatorial race and deal a severe blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
That’s the concern now growing inside Abe’s Cabinet as well as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as the former prime minister, well-known for his anti-nuclear stance, is expected to soon declare his intention to run in the Feb. 9 election.
Hosokawa, who in 1993 helped break the LDP’s four-decade monopoly on power and became the first non-LDP prime minister since 1955, would be a leading candidate in the Tokyo race if he decides to run.
For one thing, Hosokawa has been supported by fellow former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, still one of the nation’s most popular politicians. For another, he has called on Abe to pull the plug on nuclear power.
An anti-nuclear campaign by the Hosokawa-Koizumi pair would no doubt create a big public stir and attract massive media coverage, possibly damaging the Abe administration.
Abe’s team is ready to sign off on reactivating some of the 50 idled commercial reactors once they pass safety standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima crisis, possibly as early as this spring or early summer.
Though Tokyo doesn’t play host to a nuclear plant, Koizumi has reportedly urged Hosokawa to run for governor so he can stir up the national debate on nuclear power.
“Will the nuclear issue indeed become the main focus of the Tokyo election?” a senior administration official wondered with a sigh.
Another high-ranking official close to Abe pointed out earlier that restarting reactors will be a critical test for the administration in 2014.
Two other key challenges will be the April hike in the consumption tax and Abe’s plan to change the interpretation of the pacifist Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense, the officials said.
“All three will come at round the same time” in spring or early summer, the official pointed out.
“Those are the key issues for (Abe’s) government,” the official said.
Experts and government officials said most Tokyo residents are unaffiliated swing voters without loyalty to any of the established parties.
Their voting behavior is often affected by hot-button issues of the day or candidates who draw intense media coverage, rather than pork-barrel public works spending or organized election machines, the usual weapons for LDP candidates in local elections.
For gubernatorial elections, the LDP typically fields a former elite bureaucrat with strong connections for winning funds from the central government, or a native son with a solid support base built on personal connections in the local community.
This formula doesn’t really work in Tokyo, where urban voters feel little loyalty to the major parties and are less concerned about being granted construction projects by the central government.
Indeed, most candidates for Tokyo governor run as independents, trying to distance themselves from the major parties’ election machines.
“Tokyo has as many as 10 million voters. To start with, a candidate definitely needs name recognition,” the senior administration official said.
Media polls have suggested voters are still split over nuclear power. In a survey last March by NHK, 40.5 percent of 1,655 respondents said Japan should reduce the number of nuclear plants and 27.6 percent said all of them should be abolished, while just 25.2 percent said the status quo should be maintained and 1.8 percent said the number should be increased.
And yet the two most vocal anti-nuclear parties, the Social Democratic Party and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party), performed poorly in both the Lower House election in December 2012 and the Upper House election last July.
Still, LDP and government officials are worried that media stars like Koizumi could steal the show and fan anti-nuclear sentiment among volatile Tokyo voters.
In a poll commissioned by the Asahi Shimbun in November, 60 percent of the 1,751 respondents said they support Koizumi’s call on the government and LDP to abandon nuclear plants, while 25 percent said they do not.
Administration officials are desperate to divert voter attention from nuclear issues.
On Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed that the Tokyo election is a local race and should focus on issues that directly impact residents, such as plans for the 2020 Olympics and welfare policies.
It is “different” from a national election,” Suga said.
In another development Friday, former Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru said he has no intention of entering the campaign, apparently seeing little chance of winning if Hosokawa runs.
However, a Hosokawa candidacy would come with baggage, primarily in the form of his record as prime minister.
The ex-Kumamoto governor established the Japan New Party in 1992 and forged an eight-party coalition to drive the LDP from power in 1993 for the first time since its inception in 1955.
Hosokawa enjoyed huge public popularity as prime minister but suddenly quit nine months into his term over a political funding scandal.
Now a noted potter, he has often been criticized as irresponsible for abandoning his office without explaining the details of the scandal, in which he reportedly borrowed ¥100 million as part of the notorious Sagawa Kyubin corruption scandal.
Hosokawa’s term was even shorter than that of Naoki Inose, the man he wants to succeed as governor, who quit in December over a money scandal of his own one year after his inauguration. Hosokawa would face questions about that earlier scandal.