When former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe was elected governor of Tokyo by a large margin on Sunday, February 9, Japan's conservative premier Shinzo Abe clearly heaved a sigh of relief. "Now we can prepare for wonderful 2020 Olympic Games hand in hand," he said.
But Abe's true source of relief was probably the defeat of candidate Morihiro Hosokawa. The former prime minister had attempted to make the race for governor into a referendum on nuclear power. He was backed by popular politician Junichiro Koizumi, another former premier who was in power from 2001 to 2006.
But their strategy didn't pay off. True, surveys have shown that the majority of the Japanese population favor a gradual phasing out of nuclear energy. Still, energy policy isn't very high up on the list of Japanese priorities. Tokyo's voters ranked the importance of jobs, the economy, an ageing population and social welfare far higher than energy policy. In any case, the 65-year-old Masuzoe received more votes than the two anti-nuclear candidates - Hosokawa and Kenji Utsunomiya, a human rights lawyer - combined.
A step by step reduction
With his promise to gradually reduce Tokyo's dependence on nuclear power, Masuzoe took the wind out of his rivals' sails. The former health minister explained that he intends to increase the amount of power generated in Tokyo from renewable energy from currently six percent.
According to a survey conducted by public broadcaster NHK, a narrow majority of voters supports this new empahsis. 76-year-old Hosokawa has admitted defeat after the election but has pointed out that he feels there is a gap between the result and the enthusiasm of the people that he sensed during his campaign.
Nuclear opponent Koizumi doesn't want to give up yet either. "The result is regrettable but I will continue my struggle to reach a state of zero nuclear energy in the future," explained Koizumi, who changed his mind on nuclear power after Fukushima.
He justified his own pro-nuclear stance during his time as prime minister by claiming that the utility companies had lied to him about the security of the power plants.
Nuclear debate flares up anew
But anti-nuclear campaigners hardly see the election result as a vote in favor of nuclear power. Voter turnout was at low 46 percent, as the country faced the heaviest snowfall in 45 years.
Journalist Satoshi Kamata pointed to Hosokawa and Koizumi's "badly organized election campaigns" to explain the result. He claims that Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its partner New Komeito ran a "veritable campaign machine." In the liberal newspaper Asahi, Kamata explained that the Hosokawa campaign had made a big contribution to rekindling the debate about the dangers of nuclear power.
Still, the result is likely to encourage the Abe-led government to restart the country's 48 nuclear reactors which have been mothballed ever since the devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunamin in March 2011. The new energy bill, which Abe had postponed until after the Tokyo gubernatorial elections, will probably declare nuclear energy a fundamental energy source.
The liberalization of the energy market set for this spring could free the Japanese government from determining the amount of energy it will source from nuclear reactors. Until the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy was the source for 30 percent of Japan's electricity. According to information provided by Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, the government is also considering to allow three unfinished nuclear construction projects to be completed.
Obstacles block a restart
But in practice, there are still several obstacles to restarting Japanese nuclear power plants. The security checks on 16 reactors which the utility companies requested last summer have taken longer than expected. The new supervisory board for nuclear energy only has 90 employees for the task. And they are treating the checks as if the nuclear power plants needed a second operating license - meaning that they are being extremely thorough in their work.
Alongside the government, local authorities and politicians will still have to approve a restart. It could thus be several months until the plants are actually up and running again.
The next battle over nuclear power is likely to take place in just two weeks - on February 23 - in Abe's home province Yamaguchi. Unlike in the capital Tokyo, where nuclear energy was just one of the issues up for discussion, people in Yamaguchi will be deciding on only one question: whether or not to approve a new nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki. There are also elections taking place in the prefectures Ishikawa and Ehime, each of which boasts a nuclear power plant.
What is more, this autumn the population of Fukushima is set to elect a new governor. The current governor Yuhei Sato is demanding that all nuclear reactors in the prefecture be dismantled, including the four that are still intact at the Fukushima Daini plant, located just a dozen kilometers south of the damaged reactors in Daiichi.