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If Niigata gubernatorial race was a litmus test, Abe and Nikai passed

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Sunday’s gubernatorial race in Niigata Prefecture was seen as a political litmus test for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition after months of cronyism scandals related to school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen.

If so, it was a test that Abe and his closest LDP allies, especially LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, appear to have passed as they look toward their final political exam in September — the LDP presidential election. But in Niigata, local issues trumped whatever worries voters might have had about the scandal-ridden Abe administration.

The first question that decided the election was which candidate would be most effective in working with Tokyo to ensure it would receive financial assistance for local economic development and social welfare projects. Especially at a time when the population is rapidly aging and declining.

The second question was how voters felt about the way candidates would handle the issue of reactor restarts at the giant Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

Thus Hideyo Hanazumi, 60, a former secretary to powerful LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, won by playing up his Tokyo experience and promising he had the right connections there to ensure Niigata would receive money for all manner of public works projects, especially transportation infrastructure projects that he said would create new jobs.

Hanazumi won with 546,670 votes, about 37,000 more than his main rival Chikako Ikeda, who focused on opposing the nuclear power issue while supporters blasted Abe and the ruling coalition over the various scandals. Voter turnout was 58.25 percent, or 5.2 points higher than the last election.

“I promise to make Niigata strong and an easy place to live,” Hanazumi said following his victory Sunday night.

But after being initially reluctant to address the nuclear power issue, Hanazumi may have caught Ikeda’s supporters off guard by switching tactics in the last days of the campaign and suggesting he would not be a pushover when it came to approving the reboots of the No. 6 and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. The move appeared to pay dividends, as NHK and local media polls showed he picked up a few votes from those who opposed the restarts.

A poll by the local daily Niigata Nippo before the election showed that 65 percent of respondents remain opposed to restarting the reactors.

“As long as the people of Niigata remain unconvinced, (the reactors) won’t be restarted,” Hanazumi told supporters following his Sunday night victory.

But Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace Germany, who was in Niigata to observe the election, said that regardless of political statements, there were no prospects for restarts in the coming few years.

“The new governor needs to maintain Niigata’s existing policy which is to conclude investigations into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well establish a credible evacuation plan. Tepco also needs to fully disclose how it was that the risks of liquefaction at unit Kashiwazaki Kariwa 6 & 7 reactors were not notified to Japan’s nuclear regulator before safety approval last year,” said Burnie.

In Tokyo, top LDP officials did not comment on Hanazumi’s attitude toward nuclear power, but saw his victory as public vindication of the ruling parties.

“The people of Niigata trusted the LDP and Komeito and voted for the candidate the two parties supported,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday morning.

Hanazumi’s win was also a victory for his old boss Nikai, who heads an LDP faction of 44 members. Those votes will be crucial when the party elects a new president in September. Despite the scandals and low popularity ratings, Abe is seeking a third term as LDP president and counting on the Nikai faction to help him get it. Hanazumi’s win could now make it difficult for Abe’s rivals to peel off votes from the Nikai faction.