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Monday, Sep. 24, 2012

SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Power industry campaigns to pull the plug on the DPJ

Japan's electric power industry is using its political clout to help candidates who are sympathetic to its cause win seats in the Lower House. The next general election of the Diet chamber is rumored to take place as early as this autumn.

The industry at the same time is making efforts to deprive candidates not supporting its cause of a chance to win in the election.

Its prime target is the ruling Democratic Party of Japan , which it feels has caused much hardship to it since taking over the reins of government in 2009, especially in the aftermath of the severe accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, caused by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

A high-ranking executive of the industry said it cannot tolerate the DPJ because it bashed Tepco after the accident, attempted to liberalize the supply and distribution of electric power, reduced the margin of increase in an electricity rate increase requested by Tepco and dragged its feet on restarting nuclear reactors.

It has long been known that the nation's electric power companies, each of which enjoys a virtual monopoly of power supply in its respective region, played major roles in determining the trends of past Diet elections. The primary source of its political clout lies in the 120,000 employees on power company payrolls. When their group companies, affiliates, subcontractors and family members are added, the industry boasts about 1 million votes.

When the DPJ unseated the Liberal Democratic Party in the 2009 Lower House election, putting an end to half a century of the latter's nearly uninterrupted rule, many attributed that to a large number of unaffiliated or "floating" voters who had become fed up with the long DPJ rule and voted for the DPJ.

"That is not necessarily so," says a leader of the federation of electric power industry workers unions. "It is generally thought that the power industry supports the LDP. But the unions in the industry are different; they have long supported the DPJ. There are a lot of DPJ lawmakers, including members of the present Cabinet, who won in the 2009 election because of our support."

The union members were enraged by the DPJ's "about-face" after it took control of the government. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister, angered the power industry by setting a target of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent — a move that the industry had long opposed more than anything else. Then came the bashing of Tepco by Naoto Kan, who succeeded Hatoyama, and by Yukio Edano, chief Cabinet secretary under Kan.

The union leader says: "The behavior of Kan and Edano during the Fukushima accidents was decisive. We cannot condone the way the DPJ placed all the blame for the accident on the industry. Our union members are not going to vote for that party anymore."

The power industry is reported to be already drawing up a blueprint for the political landscape following the next general election, in which it expects the DPJ to lose power. Maximum efforts are directed toward winning over members of the Japan Restoration Party to the power industry side. JRP is an outgrowth of a local political group under flamboyant Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. This new party is forecast to win big in the next Lower House election. Though the party may not be able to become the No. 1 party in the Lower House, it is likely to be in a position to hold a swing vote. Thus the power industry is hoping that by co-opting this group, it will gain virtual control of the more powerful chamber of the legislature.

It may look odd for the power industry to approach Hashimoto, who had at first strongly opposed restart of the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which went offline since the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

But as soon as he came to fear that continued stoppage of the Oi reactors would cause serious power shortages in his own city of Osaka, Hashimoto quickly changed his position and approved the restart of the reactors. The aforementioned labor union leader said, "His opposition to reactor restart was not based on a strong belief. It was only a political performance."

The power industry also flexed its muscles in the gubernatorial election of Yamaguchi Prefecture on July 20. Shigetaro Yamamoto, a former bureaucrat supported by the LDP and Komeito, narrowly defeated Tetsuya Iida, who stood on a "No Nuke" platform. Many observers don't think Yamamoto would have won if not for the support from the power industry.

The DPJ more or less sat on the fence apparently for fear that supporting anti-nuclear Iida would damage its relations with the power industry.

The DPJ has started taking steps to mend its relations with the power industry. In one such step, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared late last year that the nuclear crisis at Tepco's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant had been brought under control. The party has also been holding "secret meetings" with representatives of the Federation of Electric Power Companies, an industry group.

According to one insider, party officials now are listening "to what we tell them."

In another attempt to garner support, industry representatives are said to be meeting regularly with top editorial writers of nationally circulated major newspapers to drive home to them that phasing out nuclear power generation would harm national interests.

Perhaps because of this attempt, some newspapers have started arguing that "no-nuke" politicians are merely appealing to popular sentiments.

If politicians mention a phaseout of nuclear power generation even once, it will result in loss of financial support from the power industry. As they know all too well, no money means no voice and no power.

There is a high probability that future administrations in this country will be run by those who have been blessed by the powerful political machine of the power companies. This would mean that although government leaders may call for a gradual decrease in the nation's reliance on nuclear power generation, they will make tenacious efforts to restart reactors now offline or push construction of new nuclear facilities.

Future administrations will also have to institute new laws under which the government picks up the bills for cleaning up areas contaminated by radioactive substances from Fukushima No. 1, decommissioning damaged reactors and taking over nuclear power plants not operated by power companies.

As long as politicians continue to rely on votes and money provided by the power industry, they will not be able to speak against it. By controlling politics, the power industry will regain the upper hand it lost after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, cultural and economic scenes.


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