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Beware of those independent voters

July 30, 2012
Major parties shaken by independent gubernatorial candidate's strong showing




On July 29, former senior bureaucrat Shigetaro Yamamoto, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito, beat out rival Tetsunari Iida and two other candidates to become the next governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture. This was not, however, just any gubernatorial election.

The 53-year-old Iida, who campaigned on an anti-nuclear power platform, made a serious challenge for the governorship without the support of any major political party with a strong appeal to independent voters. And although he lost, Iida has sent tremors through not only Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is known as the "kingdom of conservatism," but all of Japan, and sparked dread in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) over what angry independent voters will have in store for them come the next general election.

"This battle was a good one," Iida told supporters on the night of July 29 after garnering over half the independent vote. "We gave the LDP and New Komeito a run for their money, even in this kingdom of conservatism. We've created a bridgehead for tomorrow."

Iida, chief of the NPO Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, was the brains behind Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who leads the Osaka Restoration Association. Total voter turnout in the gubernatorial election reached just 45.32 percent, and the 63-year-old Yamamoto carried the day with the backing of so-called block voters -- members of organizations who all agree to vote the same way. However, Iida's strong showing illustrates the public's growing criticism of the policies of the established parties, particularly over nuclear power.

While Yamamoto, a former senior official with the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, ran from a generally pro-nuclear power position, he did shift direction somewhat by coming out in favor of freezing plans to build a nuclear power plant in the prefectural town of Kaminoseki. Iida has demanded the power plant plan be cancelled outright. On the deployment of the U.S. Marine Corps' new Osprey MV-22 aircraft, meanwhile, Yamamoto has come out against allowing them to be unloaded at the U.S. Marine base in the city of Iwakuni. Yamamoto's predecessor Gov. Sekinari Nii had also protested to the national government over unloading of the aircraft.

During the campaign, however, Yamamoto did his utmost to avoid dwelling on nuclear plants and Ospreys, both issues under the jurisdiction of the national government, relying instead on block voters to get him into the governor's chair. In the last half of the campaign, with Iida getting larger in his rearview mirror, Yamamoto moved to tighten control over these block voters, working full-tilt with his LDP and New Komeito backers and industry groups to cement his lead.

According to an exit poll by the Mainichi Shimbun and Tys TV Yamaguchi, 76 percent of pro-LDP voters cast their ballots for Yamamoto, while 85 percent of New Komeito supporters did the same. Some 53 percent of independents, however, voted for Iida, as against only 28 percent who backed Yamamoto.

The exit poll also showed that the nuclear power issue was not enough to bring Iida victory.

Regarding the plan for the new reactors in Kaminoseki, 44 percent of voters said it should be cancelled entirely, 26 percent were in favor of a freeze, and just 11 percent wanted the reactors to be built. Some 68 percent of the pro-reactor respondents voted for Yamamoto, while 57 percent of those in favor of cancelling the new plant voted for Iida.

However, only 17 percent of voters said that the nuclear plant issue was most important in how they cast their ballots, well behind "character and gubernatorial qualities," the most common answer at 49 percent. Meanwhile, even among those in favor of scrapping the nuclear plant plans, 31 percent voted for Yamamoto.

The exit poll was conducted at 37 polling places, with 2,467 voters responding.


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