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Some of the 13 million people who live in Tokyo go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new governor in a vote being closely watched as a popular verdict on the use of nuclear power.
TOKYO: Some of the 13 million people who live in Tokyo go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new governor in a vote being closely watched as a popular verdict on the use of nuclear power.
A crowded field of 16 men have fought an uninspiring two-week campaign to become chief executive of one of the world's biggest cities, with commentators saying it is largely a two-horse race.
Newspaper 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.
The Tokyo governor has no direct power to change national energy policy, but the verdict of the inhabitants of the political, economic and cultural capital of the country would be difficult to ignore.
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.
Observers of the Tokyo political scene welcomed the emergence of Hosokawa as a candidate for the governorship, hoping that an erstwhile political heavyweight would add some gravitas to the poll.
That he came packaged with the ever-popular Koizumi, whose shining white mane has not dimmed with age, added some much-needed pizzazz.
However, his lacklustre campaign never really ignited and commentators say he looks likely to be pushed into second place. The anti-nuclear camp's best hope, then, is for a creditable showing that might give Abe's administration pause on reactor restarts.
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, said Tomoaki Iwai of Nihon University.
Masuzoe has parried successive attempts by his opponents to make the vote a single issue election, he said, and electors are drawn to him because he appears to be a safe pair of hands.
"In a sense, voters are expressing their wish to preserve the lives they have now, a sort of pragmatism," Iwai said.
"People have voiced their interest in the economic issues, as it is the case for the rest of the country."
The post of Tokyo governor fell vacant in December when Naoki Inose stepped down in a money scandal after admitting he had been naive to accept an undeclared US$500,000 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 (US$130 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 massive 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.
Masuzoe's pedigree is impressive -- a former international politics professor, he is fluent in English and French, and was well-known through his television appearances before he won a seat in the upper house of parliament in 2001.
Between 2007 and 2009, he served as health, labour and welfare minister initially under Abe's first, short-lived, administration and now has the backing of the prime minister's conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
In his stump speeches, Masuzoe has pledged to use his expertise and personal experience of caring for his elderly mother to improve the capital's social programmes.
Tokyo should serve as "a locomotive" to pull the rest of the country with its reform efforts to boost the economy and to foster innovation, Masuzoe said.
"If we change Tokyo, we can change Japan," he said.