Toshikatsu Matsuoka is frustrated.
“He is pandering to the interest of urban voters,” said the Lower House member from Kumamoto Prefecture and vocal farm lobbyist, criticizing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Matsuoka was not the only Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who lashed out at Koizumi during a recent gathering of the party’s decision-making Executive Council. Many shouted and pounded desks to show their disapproval of Koizumi’s recent proposals that would benefit urban voters.
They argue that the plans, such as diversifying the use of a special revenue used exclusively for building roads, cutting tax grants to local governments and giving more Diet seats to urban areas, will hit rural regions hard.
But Koizumi, the first prime minister elected from an urban district in recent decades, appears determined to capture what many of his predecessors have found so elusive — the hearts and minds of unaffiliated urban voters.
“Some say (reviewing the use of road construction revenues) is out of the question, but I will certainly do it,” Koizumi told the Diet last month.
The LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the past half century, has relied heavily on organized votes in rural constituencies. But there is a growing sense of crisis among big city LDP lawmakers that the party has to start turning more to the interests of urban voters, especially after its disastrous losses in urban constituencies in last June’s Lower House election.
Late last month, Koizumi proposed that the 300 single-seat constituencies of the Lower House be redivided in a way that would correct the disparity in the value of votes between populous and less-populous electoral districts.
This means reducing seats allocated to depopulated rural areas and increasing seats to big cities. He said this should be carried out before the next general election of the Lower House.
That proposal followed his call to expand the use of special tax revenues earmarked for road construction — which have been used to ensure that roads were built in rural regions — to include other purposes, possibly projects in urban areas.
The prime minister has also said he plans to study the possibility of cutting central government tax revenues allocated to local governments as part of his plan to shore up the nation’s debt-ridden finances.
Political pundits say Koizumi’s policies may intensify a collision of interests within the LDP between those elected from rural regions and those from urban constituencies — and possibly lead to a future realignment of the party.
Amid Japan’s prolonged economic slump, there have been growing complaints among urban taxpayers that the nation’s economic resources are unfairly distributed to rural regions.
For example, Yozo Ishikawa, a veteran LDP member elected from western Tokyo, said urban infrastructure — not just rural roads and bridges — needs improvements.
“Tokyo does not function like an international city,” said Ishikawa, noting that many Tokyoites have to take a two-hour train ride to the nearest international airport, and that congestion is an everyday affair.
Takashi Mikuriya, professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the LDP has placed too much emphasis on the interests of rural regions despite the population drain from such areas.
“Government subsidies (for infrastructure construction projects) were evenly allocated to each of the regions regardless of population changes,” Mikuriya said. “That is why scarcely used roads and bridges were built.”
Although this “reckless spending” contributed to the nation’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s, experts say the policy is no longer effective since infrastructure has effectively been completed nationwide.
Many LDP lawmakers today sense that the party must start catering to urban voters.
In last June’s general election, the LDP lost 38 seats from its pre-election strength, suffering severe losses in cities that include Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.
LDP candidates won in only eight of the 25 single-seat districts in Tokyo. A number of veteran lawmakers, including then trade minister Takashi Fukaya and former trade chief Kaoru Yosano, lost their seats in the capital.
The phenomenon is nothing new to the LDP.
The percentage of proportional representation votes gained by the party in Tokyo in Upper House elections has declined from 27.7 percent in 1992 to 18.9 in the last poll in 1998. The figure is about 6 points lower than the party’s national average.
But the LDP’s losses in urban districts in the 2000 Lower House election were so serious that there was speculation that LDP members elected from big cities might leave the party to form an “urban new party,” possibly with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara as its leader.
History casts doubt on whether Koizumi’s proposals will succeed.
During the 1980s, the LDP tried to become a party that would gain the support of urban voters as well, said Muneyuki Shindo, a professor of political science at Rikkyo University.
At one point, the LDP appeared to have achieved that goal, when the party, then led by Yasuhiro Nakasone, won a landslide victory in the simultaneous elections of both the Lower and Upper houses in 1986. It was believed at the time that the LDP had expanded its support among voters who had previously backed its main rival, the Social Democratic Party, which appealed to urban voters.
“But the LDP slipped back to being a party dependent on rural votes after the burst of the bubble economy (in the early 1990s),” Shindo said.
Political commentator Hisayuki Miyake said that although voters in rural areas are fewer than their urban counterparts, they are united and traditionally provide a reliable vote-gathering machine for the ruling party.
In return, they pressure LDP members to deliver public works projects such as roads and fishing ports to their hometowns.
“But in big cities, corporate workers’ sense of values are diverse and they do not act as a pressure group against the LDP,” Miyake noted.
Koizumi will also find it difficult to drum up support from within the party.
Most members of the LDP’s largest faction, led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, are elected from rural constituencies, and they will put up strong resistance, the commentator said.
Koizumi will reveal more details about his proposals after July’s Upper House election. The crucial moment may come when he tries to submit legislation proposals for his reform plans to an extraordinary Diet session eyed for autumn, Miyake said.
“The Hashimoto faction is waiting for Koizumi’s popularity to dwindle,” he said. “If the objections (against his proposals) are too strong, Koizumi will probably dissolve the Lower House” for a snap election to seek a public mandate for his reforms.
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