Landslide victory for the LDP in Japan highlights pragmatism, economy over nuclear concerns

TOKYO – More than 20 months after a catastrophic nuclear disaster, massive protests against atomic energy and public opinion polls backing the phase-out of reactors, a pro-nuclear party won Japan’s parliamentary election.

The result left anti-nuclear proponents in shock Monday, struggling to understand how the Liberal Democratic Party not only won, but won in a landslide.

The LDP grabbed 294 of the 480 seats in the lower house, while the ruling Democratic Party dwindled to a fraction of its pre-ballot presence, at 57 seats, down from 230.

The Tomorrow Party, which ran on a strong anti-nuclear platform, fizzled out, ending up with just nine seats in Sunday’s vote.

The sharp rejection of the ruling party and comeback by the better organized Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled almost non-stop for the last half century before being deposed in 2009, stunned many who expected profound change after the meltdowns and explosions at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that followed the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

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Some voters put recovery efforts – both for the disaster-hit area and for the economy – as the top priority. Mihoko Terada, a 40-year-old mother of two in the disaster-struck area of Sendai, cast her ballot for the LDP, partly because she was fed up with the Democrats’ bumbling along on recovery efforts, but mainly because it looked like the lesser of evils – and the more professional politicians.

“I didn’t go for any ideals. I went for the party that I could realistically see as getting something done for recovery,” she said, while acknowledging she was worried about radiation and nuclear plants. “This is not about what intellectuals think. Reality is very different.”

Anti-nuclear voters didn’t act as a cohesive group compared to the Liberal Democrats or the Komeito, a Buddhist-backed party that is expected to continue its longtime coalition with the LDP. The two now control a two-thirds majority in the lower house, allowing them to override the less powerful upper house to pass legislation.

According to the Sankei newspaper on Monday, that resulted in the number of pro-nuclear power lawmakers in the lower house rising to 346 from 132 before the election, while those opposed shrank to 123 from 339.

In some districts, the several candidates opposed to nuclear power totalled more votes together than did the LDP candidate, but none on their own got more than the LDP candidate.

Hiroshi Izumi, a politics expert, said that public support for the LDP did not increase from the last election, but votes were just splintered much among other parties.

“The election system isn’t set up to reflect public opinion at all,” he said.

The LDP is expected to revive pork-barrel spending that bolstered decades of growth following World War II, and push for inflation targets that will effectively curtail a rising yen – a boon for the major exporters of Japan Inc. Tokyo stock prices rose Monday on expectations of such policies.

“I had such big hopes for the Tomorrow Party. They were saying the most correct things,” Yutaka Kawakami, a 34-year-old jewelry-store worker said in a telephone interview from the southwestern island of Okinawa.

“I really wonder if the people who voted for the Liberal Democrats really know what their policies are,” said Kawakami, who along with other skeptics fears the Liberal Democrats will boost hawkish nationalism, raise taxes and favour big business over the little guy.

Most of all, they fear the Liberal Democrats will restart the nation’s 48 working nuclear reactors that are still offline, except for two that are back up, since the disaster.

The fears have prompted thousands of people to regularly hold rallies against the restart of the reactors in front of the Parliament buildings in Tokyo on Friday evenings and national holidays.

There are worries about spewing radiation from Fukushima Dai-ichi, as well as a repeat of the nuclear disaster because of the multiple quake faults underneath plants that dot Japan’s coastlines.

Anti-nuclear activist and writer Mari Takenouchi is worried for the future of Japan under LDP leader Shinzo Abe, known for nationalistic views that have upset relations with China and other Asian neighbours.

Abe is almost certain to become the next prime minister when legislators vote, likely later this month. Reflecting widespread opinion in the anti-nuclear camp, Takenouchi fears Abe may see the election as a mandate to do whatever he wants.

“I was shocked out of my wits by the results,” she said. “It’s just beyond my comprehension.”

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Go west, young man: one-industry towns watch as economy passes them by

HANTSPORT, N.S. – Glenn Rogers appreciated his small-town life in the Maritimes. But the lure of big dollars in Alberta was too strong to resist after his employer of 18 years shut down.

“I didn’t really look outside the mill until I was given no choice,” says Rogers, who worked as an instrument technician at the Minas Basin Pulp and Power paper mill until Friday, when it closed.

The manufacturer of recycled paper products employed 135 people in Hantsport, a town of 1,160. About 40 of them were offered jobs at CKF Inc., a local paper and foam plate maker and the mill’s sister company.

Rogers, 41, is now working at the Kearl Lake oilsands project in northern Alberta earning between $60 and $70 per hour – double the wages of what he was offered in Nova Scotia.

“You have a family to feed,” he said. “You go where you have to go and you have to do what you have to do.”

The closure of the 85-year-old Minas Basin mill is the latest blow for one-industry towns that have seen the economy pass them by, adding to the westward migration of skilled workers and draining the coffers of struggling communities.

It is the third paper mill to shut down in Nova Scotia in a year.

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In June, Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products (TSX:RFP) announced the closure of its paper mill formerly known as Bowater in Brooklyn, N.S., throwing 320 people out of work. That came despite a $50-million provincial government offer to the company, $23.75 million of which was spent to buy about 10,000 hectares of land.

The former NewPage Port Hawkesbury paper mill in Point Tupper, N.S., resumed operations in October under a new name after it was bought by Vancouver-based Pacific West Commercial Corp. The mill has roughly half the workers it once employed, and that came after a $124.5-million assistance package from the provincial government.

The closures in Atlantic Canada aren’t relegated to paper mills. Just this past Friday, High Liner Foods Inc. (TSX:HLF) shuttered a fish plant in the southern Newfoundland town of Burin, saying the facility was expensive to operate because of its isolated location and distance from the marketplace.

About 140 people lost their jobs in the community of 2,400.

As the plants close, the small-town dream fades for many, says Arne Jensen, a former construction electrician at the Minas Basin site.

“It’s unbelievable how much money can be made leaving home,” he said.

The 33-year-old has also worked in the West, and said it isn’t difficult for a skilled tradeperson to quickly embrace the interprovincial commuting lifestyle.

“There are a lot of guys from Liverpool and Bowater. They’re out there in Alberta. That’s where you have to go.”

Hantsport Mayor Robbie Zwicker, an engineer at CKF, says he is determined to keep working in his town, despite its challenges.

“I don’t want to become like a lot of my colleagues, doing the Alberta dream. I think it’s just savage,” he said.

“My province has invested good money into my health care and my education. It’s a shame to turn our tax dollars over to the province of Alberta only to return to retire and further burden the local economies.”

As mayor, he faces the immediate task of trying to make up for a $270,000 drop in local tax revenue, about 10 per cent of the town budget, due to the Minas Basin mill closure.

“The small-town model in this province and probably many others may be broken and may be due for a relook,” he says.

He says towns that lose their main industries such as his may need to join regional municipalities, and commuters living just outside the borders of villages and small towns may have to pay higher taxes.

He is marketing Hantsport as a good place for an information technology hub. Driving through the community, he points to the soccer field, four hectares of scenic community grounds, and grand old homes with elegant gables and ornate latticework.

“Hantsport is tied into the Annapolis Valley continuous fibre network,” he says. “The Internet connectivity means you don’t have to be in Toronto or Silicon Valley. It’s a lower cost-of-living, and a great place to raise your kids.”

However, while Zwicker remains optimistic about the town’s prospects, some community leaders are also preparing for the possibility of social problems as a result of job loss and family strain.

Rev. Daniel Jamer, a Baptist minister, says community groups meet regularly in hopes of heading off social ills ranging from depression to suicide.

“This has created a lot of pain and struggle for people,” he said. “People are asking, ‘Can I stay here? Must I go someplace else?’”

Jamer says becoming a community of migrant workers to Alberta isn’t the solution.

“Financially it relieves pressures, but there’s more to life than money. In a family relationship there are strains from that life.”

Robert Younker, a 47-year-old resident of Liverpool, N.S., lost his job when the Bowater mill closed and now works on contracts that take him around the province doing environmental testing and construction work.

He says there’s growing concern in the Maritimes about workers moving out of their communities and taking spending dollars with them.

“If I’m not working I’m not taking my family out to supper, I’m not travelling as much, I’m not buying fuel at the local gas station,” Younker says.

He holds out hope that Liverpool will find a way to bounce back and gradually replace the paper industry jobs.

“I can’t imagine going anywhere else,” he says.

Liverpool has a deepwater harbour, and the Nova Scotia government recently acquired the Bowater mill’s former assets, including 220,000 hectares of land it hopes can be used by the forestry industry.

Premier Darrell Dexter has also said that he believes the Port Hawkesbury mill is poised to thrive under new ownership as it focuses on glossy supercalendered paper for the magazine and catalogue market.

But skilled workers like Rogers say they’re not planning to submit applications in the paper industry.

And Terry Gerhardt, the manager of operations who organized the shutdown of the Minas Basin mill, says his career in the paper industry is coming to an end.

“There’s other manufacturing careers out there that I think are possible. I think Nova Scotia is losing a lot of paper experience because people have just had enough,” the 47-year-old says.

“Either you’re going to go out West or it’s time to move on to a different manufacturing field.”