The candidate backed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has won a landslide victory in Sunday's election for governor of Tokyo. The poll has been widely seen by Abe’s opponents as a referendum on his pro-nuclear energy policy nearly three years after the Fukushima disaster.
Masuzoe downplayed the nuclear referendum aspect, concentrating as he had on the election campaign on welfare and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I will be working to make Tokyo the world's best city, in terms of welfare, disaster preparedness, its economy and more importantly to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics a success,” newly-elected Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe said in his victory speech.
The widely expected victory comes as a relief for Abe, who had suffered a rare setback in another local election last month. Abe said he was happy to work with the new governor on the Tokyo Olympics.
“I want him to make Tokyo a shining beacon at the center of the world. I have just returned from Sochi and I want to work hand-in-hand to ensure that we have a wonderful 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” Abe said.
Masuzoe, 65, backed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, won by a wide margin, polling numbers showed.
Masuzoe had not made energy policy a prime focus, although he said Japan should reduce its dependence on nuclear power in the medium to long term.
That was enough for the voters.
“It’s obvious that Tokyo residents cannot ignore the problem of nuclear power plants but above that, they prioritized welfare and employment issues and I think they voted from that stand-point,” senior research fellow at the Fujitsu research institute, Hidetaka Yoneyama, noted.
Masuzoe's most prominent rival was former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, who came out of retirement to run and with support from charismatic ex-premier Junichiro Koizumi, had put opposition to atomic energy at the core of his platform in the race to lead the capital city of 13.3 million people.
Yoneyama added that people voted with their wallets.
“With the residents of Tokyo supporting Masuzoe, it also means they are showing their support for Prime Minister Abe's policies,” Yoneyama said.
Surveys have shown that most Japanese voters favor abandoning nuclear power, either immediately or in the longer term, but they also indicate that energy policy is not as important an issue for voters as jobs and the economy, an aging population and welfare.
Analysts said Hosokawa and Koizumi had failed to gain traction for their single-issue campaign.
Thirty-five-year-old Sakiko Hani agreed that the economy came first.
“Well, the anti-nuclear movement resonated until recently when the economy was in the doldrums. But now that the economy has swung up, I think everyone is less concerned about the nuclear issue,” Hani said.
Forty-five-year-old Takayuki Miura echoed the sentiment.
“I think Masuzoe is the most realistic candidate for the Tokyo of today,” Miura said.
Masuzoe's win, however, is unlikely to mean smooth sailing for Abe's efforts to restart reactors shut down after the Fukushima accident.
This is because of delays in safety checks by a new atomic regulator and the need to persuade host communities to agree to the government's plans.
Masuzoe replaces former governor Naoki Inose, who resigned in December amid scandal.
Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters.