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Aging population, reform taking a toll on LDP

A prominent member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party with a Cabinet ministerial experience has expressed a sense of crisis for his party as the nationwide local elections in April draw near.

Although it is utterly unthinkable that the LDP would suffer a defeat in those prefectural and municipal elections, he said, the party’s local organizations are already in a dying condition.

Although the LDP has a commanding majority in both houses of the Diet in the absence of a powerful opposition party, his view is being shared privately by LDP members.

The weakening of the party’s local organizational power, attributable to its failure to replace aging members with younger generations, is already in a danger zone.

As the prominent party leader has stated, the LDP will show its overwhelming strength in the upcoming local elections. But that is due primarily to the difficulties that the opposition parties, notably the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party, are having in selecting candidates for prefectural and municipal assemblies.

It is unlikely that the LDP will fail to retain a majority in a large number of local assemblies that it secured in the previous round of local elections held shortly after the great earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region in 2011.

Moreover, the governing party appears certain to enjoy ascendancy in prefectural and municipal assemblies where the LDP is a minority due to the remaining effect of a boom the DPJ enjoyed in the 2007 elections.

But an LDP official in charge of elections says that such an outcome is not a victory for the LDP but a shortcoming on the part of the weak opposition.

As if to prove that point, while there will be gubernatorial contests in 10 prefectures and mayoral races in five major cities, the DPJ, as of February, appeared to be capable of putting up its own candidates only two prefectures, Hokkaido and Oita, and one city, Sapporo.

One DPJ insider has admitted that although the upcoming elections, in view of the results in the recent gubernatorial elections in Okinawa, Shiga and Saga, are a good chance for the party to make a recovery, there simply are not enough people who can be strong candidates to stand up against the LDP.

Within the ruling LDP, meanwhile, the secretary generals of its prefectural chapters let out a scream at their meeting held at party headquarters on Feb. 7.

Moriyuki Teruya of Okinawa said his chapter could not push its election campaign because no details had been made known about the government’s plan to drastically reform the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, aka JA-Zenchu. Mineo Ono representing the Niigata chapter followed up by opposing any quick action on the part of the government for the reform of the agricultural cooperatives.

Satoshi Nakanishi of the Kochi chapter said any drastic reform actions for the farm cooperatives taken by the government would only work against the LDP in the local elections.

On behalf of the party headquarters, Tomomi Inada, chairwoman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, emphasized the importance of the projected reforms as a means of encouraging farmers to exercise their originality and ingenuity. But her words fell on the deaf ears of all participants.

The party’s organ published three days later carried a front-page headline which said, “The local organizations and the party headquarters united and working together.” But one local secretary general said the headline was erroneous and that the organ should have reported the criticism expressed by local representatives.

What LDP local officials bear in mind is the result of the Saga gubernatorial election in January this year, in which the LDP-backed candidate lost as farmers revolted against him.

Although the farming bloc is no longer as powerful as it used to be, an LDP local leader pointed out that it can still exert enough power to make an LDP candidate lose. He also expressed the fear that the government’s agricultural cooperative reforms will deliver a devastating blow to the LDP’s local chapters.

Moreover, a political reporter said that the LDP legislators, both on the national and local levels, must not underestimate the roles being played by women in agricultural areas, including not only those working at agricultural cooperative offices but also the wives of executives and workers of construction companies.

The latter group feels especially bitter against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call for reducing tax deductions on dependents for the ultimate purpose of encouraging more women to join the workforce.

It is no exaggeration to say that such a scheme would only antagonize women, said the aforementioned official of the party’s local chapter.

The overall aging of the population is also affecting the LDP as the party can no longer count heavily on elderly supporters, including women, as it did in the past. There have also been a growing number of cases in which children choose not to inherit the party membership of their parents after their deaths.

This is clearly reflected in a sharp decrease in party membership, which declined from 5.47 million in the peak year of 1991 to less than 2.5 million in 1997. After a brief recovery, the number plummeted to less than 1 million in 2009 and further to 790,000 as of August 2012. The party has stopped releasing the number of party members since, although officially it is carrying out a campaign to regain the status of a party with one million members.

An Upper House LDP member from a rural constituency has confided, meanwhile, that he is not at all certain about the outcome of the Upper House election scheduled for the summer of next year even if his party managed to win in the forthcoming local elections.

He said that for its strength, the LDP is dependent to a large extent on the support given to it by agricultural cooperatives and the construction industry, although such a connection has been subject to criticism.

He added that it would be outrageous to alienate those groups without offering alternative measures.

Another factor casting a shadow on the LDP is its relationship with Komeito, a junior partner in the ruling coalition and the political arm of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist movement.

An LDP-affiliated mayor in the Tohoku region said the LDP in elections has become so reliant on Soka Gakkai members, who account for 10 percent of the nation’s eligible voters, that it has lost much of its “physical strength” to conduct election campaigns on its own.

It is a well-known fact that the LDP’s failure to secure support of Soka Gakkai members led its candidates to lose in the gubernatorial elections in Shiga and Okinawa last year.

Furthermore, the LDP’s endeavors to replace its old legislators with younger generations faces a hurdle — negotiations with Komeito. Fear of a conflict with Komeito is costing the LDP a chance to replace its old legislators.

A lawmaker who has shifted his affiliation from the DPJ to the LDP said he was much impressed with the strength of the latter’s local organizations. But that is only when the LDP is compared with the DPJ, which has no major organized supporters other than labor unions.

The LDP’s local organizations have already collapsed, said an LDP leader. Voices of the LDP local organizations have now turned from a “scream” for help to “death throes.”

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

  • Liars N. Fools

    Japan’s “scleroticism” is unfortunately in play. Sclerotic society plus sclerotic politics translate into a polity, society, and economy in trouble but without the dynamism of ideas to shake it out of its doldrums. The fault rests in large part on the political leadership of all stripes in Japan.