Voting started Sunday in crucial Japanese local elections, including the Tokyo governorship, amid an ongoing battle to bring a nuclear emergency under control in the tsunami-ravaged nation.
Japanese voters began casting ballots today in local elections that may influence whether Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan partners with the opposition after last month’s earthquake and tsunami.
Twelve of the country’s 47 prefectures are holding elections for governors and local assemblies, while many of the remaining areas will vote on April 24. Elections in some prefectures affected by the quake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant have been postponed.
Almost two-thirds of voters are critical of Kan’s response to the nuclear crisis and want him to form a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party that governed for almost half a century until 2009, a poll last week showed. A poor result by the DPJ may weaken Kan’s position in negotiations with the LDP on teaming up to pass economic stimulus plans, analysts say.
“There is rising discontent with Kan’s leadership,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “If the DPJ loses badly, Kan will face pressure to step down as a condition for the LDP to join a coalition government.”
LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki has pledged support for recovery efforts while saying he’s “cautious” about joining the government.
More than 60 percent of voters disapprove of Kan’s handling of the crisis at Dai-Ichi, owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co., according to a Yomiuri newspaper poll published on April 4. The survey said 64 percent favor a DPJ-LDP government. Kan’s approval rating rose seven percentage points to 31 percent from 24 percent the month before, the Yomiuri said. The newspaper polled 1,036 people and provided no margin of error.
The most prominent contest is in Tokyo, where incumbent Governor Shintaro Ishihara is favored to win his fourth term heading Japan’s richest and biggest city. The 78-year-old initially sparked public anger for saying the disaster was “divine punishment” for Japan’s excesses. He apologized and as the crisis deepened with damage to the nuclear plant, he sought to head off concerns over radiation levels in Tokyo’s water by drinking it in front of television cameras.
Ishihara is preferred over Miki Watanabe, founder of restaurant chain Watami Co., and former Miyazaki prefectural governor Hideo Higashikokubaru, the Asahi newspaper said on April 5. Three-fourths of voters approve of Ishihara, a former LDP member and now independent, the newspaper said. The Asahi surveyed 1,592 voters and provided no margin of error.
In addition to Tokyo, where polls close at 8 p.m., other prefectures holding elections today include northern Hokkaido, Kanagawa, Nara and Mie. Turnout is expected to be low, as voters are pre-occupied with the earthquake and tsunami that left more than 27,000 people dead or missing, Kawakami said.
Workers at the Dai-Ichi plant are struggling to stabilize its reactors, which have spewed radiation into the air and water after partial meltdowns.
The administration is compiling an initial relief and reconstruction plan that may be as much as 4 trillion yen ($47 billion), Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on April 7. Kan has reached out to the opposition, last month abandoning a bill to increase cash handouts to families that the LDP criticized as wasteful.
Agreeing on how to fund the package is contentious in a country with the world’s largest public debt, which is twice the size of gross domestic product. Edano last week said the government intends to avoid issuing deficit-covering bonds to pay for the first relief package.