Updated: 01/14/2014 18:41 | By Agence France-Presse

Tokyo governor race wide open as ex-PM Koizumi steps in

Popular former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Tuesday he was backing a fellow ex-premier in the race to become Tokyo governor, setting the stage for an electoral clash over nuclear power.

Tokyo governor race wide open as ex-PM Koizumi steps in

Former Japanese premiers Morihiro Hosokawa (left) and Junichiro Koizumi speak to reporters during a press conference in Tokyo, on January 14, 2013

Morihiro Hosokawa, who served in the nation's top job in 1993-4 as head of a now-defunct coalition, announced his independent candidacy and scored a ringing endorsement from the influential Koizumi, with the two men both playing up their anti-atomic stance.

"I have made my decision to run in the Tokyo governor election," Hosokawa told reporters after meeting Koizumi. "I have a sense of crisis myself that the country's various problems, especially nuclear power plants, are matters of survival for the country."

The move positions him as the main alternative to the candidate backed by current premier Shinzo Abe and his pro-business Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which wants to restart the nation's mothballed nuclear power plants.

Japanese voters have become wary of nuclear power since the tsunami-sparked disaster at Fukushima began in March 2011, but the issue failed to materialise in the national polls that brought Abe to power, with his opponents' apparent haplessness neutralising their anti-nuclear stance.

Tokyo's governor oversees a budget of some $60 billion and exercises control over the economic, political and cultural heart of Japan. The position is one of the most powerful roles in Japanese public life.

In addition to numerous powers to set policy, the Tokyo government is also a major shareholder in Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the Fukushima plant, as well as several other nuclear power stations.

An anti-nuclear governor could use this position to curb the utility's drive to re-start its shuttered reactors.

Koizumi, whose flamboyant style and luxurious mane made him a popular prime minister between 2001 and 2006, has become an anti-nuclear convert in recent years, putting him at odds with his status as an LDP grandee.

"I will work hard and actively for Mr. Hosokawa's election," Koizumi said as he appeared with Hosokawa.

"The election will be a battle between a group of people who say Japan cannot advance without nuclear power plants and another group of people who say Japan can."

Observers say that with Koizumi's backing, Hosokawa, who celebrates his 76th birthday Tuesday, is a serious challenger to the establishment favourite, former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe.

Masuzoe, 65, who gained fame as a political scientist and TV personality, also formally announced his candidacy Tuesday, saying that his priority was to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics a success.

"With such a big goal as the Olympics, we can change Tokyo by giving all we have," he told a news conference.

The post of Tokyo governor fell vacant last month when Naoki Inose stepped down in a money scandal after admitting he had been naive to accept an undeclared $500,000 from a hospital tycoon.

Inose, 67, had been one of the main faces of Tokyo's successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

A former air defence force chief with outspoken nationalist views, an anti-nuclear liberal lawyer and others have already thrown their hats in the ring.

Candidates have to formally declare themselves during office hours on January 23, and the vote takes place on February 9.

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