Tokyo governor election puts nuclear power to test

TOKYO - Voters in Tokyo will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new governor in a race being closely watched as a popular verdict on the use of nuclear power.

Polling stations will open at 7.00am (10am, Sunday, Singapore time), with observers saying the heaviest snowfall in more than 45 years may affect voter turnout in the city of 13 million people.

A crowded field of 16 men fought an uninspiring two-week campaign to become chief executive of one of the world's biggest cities.

Media surveys suggest one-time television presenter and former cabinet minister Yoichi Masuzoe has a commanding lead, despite his alignment with the government on the need to restart Japan's idled nuclear reactors.

The Japanese public has become increasingly sceptical of the once-trusted technology since the tsunami-sparked disaster at Fukushima in March 2011.

Separate polls by the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun have consistently found 65-year-old Masuzoe with a comfortable lead over his closest rival, former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, and renowned lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya, 67.

Both men have campaigned on an anti-nuclear platform and a win by Hosokawa, who has the backing of popular former premier Junichiro Koizumi, would create friction for the national government in its eventual aim to get nuclear reactors working again.

- Economy, social welfare key issues -

Most Japanese voters are against nuclear power but the issue did not materialise in the national polls of December 2012 that swept pro-nuclear Shinzo Abe into the prime minister's office, with his opponents' apparent haplessness neutralising their anti-nuclear stance.

While policy-makers are looking at the vote as a litmus test on the nuclear issue, much of the voting will come down to bread and butter issues like the economy and social welfare programmes, pundits say.

Polling stations close at 8.00pm (7pm Singapore time), with media exit polls expected shortly thereafter.

The post of Tokyo governor fell vacant in December when Mr Naoki Inose stepped down in a money scandal after admitting he had been naive to accept an undeclared US$500,000 (S$634,000) from a hospital tycoon.

The office holder presides over Japan's most populated and wealthiest prefecture, where the local government's annual 13-trillion-yen (S$161 billion) budget rivals that of Sweden and keeps 165,000 people on its payroll.

The new governor will likely spend much of his time preparing for the 2020 summer Olympics, with huge construction projects and the renovation of the city's ageing infrastructure already under way.

Like the rest of Japan, Tokyo faces the question of how it should provide affordable care for the growing number of elderly people, but it must balance that with maintaining its appeal to the younger generations who make it such a vibrant commercial and cultural hub.

"I will make Tokyo the world number one in terms of economy, welfare, disaster prevention and public safety," Mr Masuzoe told voters on the eve of the poll.

Between 2007 and 2009, Mr Masuzoe served as health, labour and welfare minister, initially under Mr Abe's first, short-lived, administration. He now has the backing of the prime minister's conservative Liberal Democratic Party.