MITO, IBARAKI PREF. – In a tight race Sunday, former businessman and trade bureaucrat Kazuhiko Oigawa won the Ibaraki gubernatorial election, giving a lift to the struggling Liberal Democratic Party and denying Gov. Masaru Hashimoto a record seventh consecutive term.
The challenge from the political newcomer came as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling LDP attempt to recover from scandals that have wiped out his aura of invincibility and sent him spiraling in the polls. The election was the first major contest since Abe revamped the Cabinet and party leadership on Aug. 3.
The LDP, allied with smaller Komeito in the ruling coalition, put a great deal of effort into the three-horse race as it was viewed as a prelude to the three Lower House by-elections scheduled in October.
In July, Abe’s party was handed humiliating defeats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and Sendai mayoral elections.
Oigawa, 53, campaigned on a promise to cap term limits for governors, saying Hashimoto, 71, had been in office too long.
Hashimoto, who was backed by the local chapter of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) and other entities, campaigned on public opposition to restarting the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant.
Hashimoto has been governor for 24 years. If he had won, he would have held the Japanese record for consecutive re-elections.
According to the final tally, Oigawa received 497,361 votes, Hashimoto 427,743 and the remainder went to animal rights activist Makomi Tsuruta, who got 122,013. Tsuruta, 52, was backed by the Japanese Communist Party.
Turnout was 43.48 percent, up from 31.74 percent in the previous race, the local election board said.
One of the main issues was whether to restart the aging Tokai No. 2 power station, Ibaraki’s only commercial nuclear plant.
The reactor shares the same coastline as the defunct, tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Although Hashimoto campaigned against restarting the nearly 40-year-old plant, Oigawa, a former Microsoft Japan Co. executive, avoided taking a clear stance on the issue. Tsuruta opposed restarting the reactor and vowed to have it decommissioned.
The reactor will face decommissioning if it cannot clear the tougher safety screening required for restarts by November 2018, when it will turn 40.
The plant, about 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Tokyo, has a capacity of 1.1 gigawatts.
Local approval — including the endorsement of the governor — is traditionally sought by all utilities when returning nuclear power plants to service. About 65 percent of the voters in Ibaraki were opposed to restarting Tokai No. 2, according to a Kyodo News poll of 1,015 residents from Aug. 19 to Aug. 20.
About 960,000 people live within 30 km of the reactor, making it the biggest reactor-centric population in the country. Mayors from 10 of the prefecture’s 44 towns oppose restarting it, and only two support it, according to a Tokyo Shimbun survey conducted earlier this year.
Five of Japan’s viable commercial reactors are back online after receiving clearance and passing post-3/11 safety tests.