National / Politics

Wins in Hokkaido, Oita lift ruling bloc’s prospects

First wave of unified local elections bolsters Abe's nuclear, TPP hopes

Kyodo, Staff Report

The governors of Hokkaido and Oita won re-election to a fourth term Sunday as the first wave of the quadrennial unified elections produced victories for the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling bloc.

In Hokkaido, Gov. Harumi Takahashi, 61, ran as an independent and beat rival independent Noriyuki Sato, 65, a former television anchor backed by the Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties.

In Oita, Gov. Katsusada Hirose, 72, running as an independent, defeated Ban Kugimiya, 67, another independent and a former mayor of Oita who was effectively backed by the DPJ.

Of the 10 gubernatorial elections held Sunday, the ruling and opposition blocs squared off in just two prefectures: Hokkaido and Oita. There were no head-on competitions in the other eight prefectures: Kanagawa, Fukui, Mie, Nara, Tottori, Shimane, Tokushima and Fukuoka. Incumbents won all 10 gubernatorial races, all backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition and some also backed by the DPJ.

On Sunday, voters cast ballots to choose governors, mayors and local assembly members across Japan in the first of two rounds of unified local elections that take place every four years. The second round is set for April 26 to elect mayors and city assembly members in other areas.

Takahashi’s victory gives a lift to the administration of Abe on nuclear and agricultural policy. Whereas Sato is an opponent of reactor restarts and the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, Takahashi, a former industry ministry bureaucrat, remains ambiguous on these contentious issues — leaving room for consensus with the central government.

Western Hokkaido hosts the idled Tomari nuclear plant run by Hokkaido Electric Power Co., while Japan’s potentially unconditional participation in the TPP is widely seen as having a heavy potential impact on Hokkaido’s dairy industry and agriculture in general.

The wins in Hokkaido and Oita are a boon for Abe, who has vowed to revitalize regional economies outside Tokyo and ensure his “Abenomics” policies banish deflation and secure a recovery that can be felt nationwide.

Voters in eight other prefectures cast gubernatorial lots. In Kanagawa, incumbent Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa, 60, emerged as the victor. The former Fuji TV anchorman was backed by several parties in both the ruling and opposition camps.

Victors in the remaining gubernatorial races were Issei Nishikawa in Fukui, Shinji Hirai in Tottori, Kamon Iizumi in Tokushima, Hiroshi Ogawa in Fukuoka, Eikei Suzuki in Mie, Zenbei Mizoguchi in Shimane and Shogo Arai in Nara.

Aside from selecting governors in 10 prefectures, Sunday’s polls also selected mayors in five government-designated major cities, as well as assembly members in 41 of the 47 prefectures and in 17 of the nation’s 20 major cities.

Of 2,284 seats in 41 prefectural assembly elections up for grabs, the LDP won 1,153, securing a majority in unified local elections for the first time since 1991.

The DPJ won only 264 seats, retreating from the 314 it held prior to the elections as it struggles against waning popularity.

Voter turnout in the gubernatorial elections came to a record low 47.14 percent, rewriting the previous record of 52.63 percent logged in 2003.

Revitalizing regional economies amid Japan’s declining population was the foremost campaign issue in the local elections, which are held simultaneously every four years to cut election costs and improve voting rates.

The ruling and opposition parties are trying to shore up their support bases to brace for upcoming national contests, including one for the House of Councilors next year.

The outcome of the local polls is being closely watched, as the ruling LDP has failed to win strong voter support in recent gubernatorial contests despite its convincing victory in the House of Representatives election last December, which produced the lowest voter turnout in history.

Of the five mayoral elections, the race in Sapporo was the only one fought between the ruling and opposition parties. Former Sapporo Deputy Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto, backed by the DPJ and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), was assured of defeating Nana Honma, a former central government official supported by the LDP.

A focal point in the 41 prefectural assembly elections was whether the LDP could secure a majority of the 2,284 seats being contested for the first time in unified local elections since 1991. Another point of interest was whether the DPJ could retain its 314 pre-election seats amid its waning popularity.