Despite the Liberal Democratic Party’s resounding victory in Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, experts said it remains unclear whether the groundswell will mean very much in the Upper House election next month.
While the Tokyo poll apparently showed that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — also the LDP chief — has succeeded in capturing the hearts of urban voters, his reform-oriented policies may backfire in rural constituencies, the party’s traditional strongholds.
In Sunday’s election, 53 of the 55 candidates fielded by the LDP won, pushing up the party’s strength in the assembly by five from 48 before the poll.
The LDP pursued a simple strategy of making the most of Koizumi’s enormous popularity without referring to specific policy proposals.
When Koizumi’s unpopular predecessor Yoshiro Mori was at the party’s helm, some members of the LDP’s Tokyo chapter even considered leaving the party and running as independents. They did a complete about-face after Koizumi took office in April.
Posters of LDP candidates shaking hands with Koizumi were put up everywhere, while supporters donned T-shirts featuring Koizumi.
When Koizumi made speeches for LDP candidates during the official campaign period, thousands of voters gathered to listen.
However, some experts doubt that the Tokyo election is an indication of voter sentiments that will carry over into future elections, in particular in the triennial Upper House poll slated for July 29.
Rei Shiratori, professor of political science at Tokai University, argues that the LDP’s victory Sunday owes much to the support of potential LDP supporters, rather than unaffiliated voters as described in most media reports.
“Potential LDP supporters who previously abstained from voting cast votes for the LDP in the Tokyo election, causing a boost in the party’s votes,” Shiratori said.
“But three-quarters of swing voters still voted for the opposition,” he said, citing media analysis of exit polls. Many unaffiliated voters in urban constituencies are apparently still skeptical of the LDP under Koizumi’s leadership.
Shiratori also pointed out that despite Koizumi’s high approval rating of about 85 percent in media polls, the LDP gained just 36 percent of the votes cast in Tokyo on Sunday. However, that is still up from the 30.82 percent the LDP took in the last election four years ago.
Norihiko Narita, professor of politics at Surugadai University, said Tokyo voters did not have to think twice in voting for the LDP, because Koizumi’s reform policies are in line with the interest of Tokyoites.
“Tokyo voters did not have to worry about whether voting for Koizumi, who has voiced urban-centered policies, may go against the interests of rural areas,” Narita said. “It was an easy choice for them.”
Koizumi has said he will diversify the use of road-construction revenues to other purposes and touched on the possibility of cutting tax grants to local governments — policies that are likely to prove unpopular among rural voters and the construction industry.
Narita predicted that the LDP may not win as big as in the Tokyo poll when voters nationwide cast their ballots in the Upper House election.
Despite such misgivings, the LDP is considering taking a more aggressive strategy toward the Upper House election by increasing the number of authorized candidates.
Afraid of splitting conservative votes amid a long-term decline in support for the party, the LDP initially planned to field only one candidate in constituencies to which two or more seats are allocated.
But since Koizumi took the helm, senior members of the LDP have indicated that the party should take advantage of the prime minister’s popularity by fielding more candidates in such electoral districts.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, are being forced to review their strategy of differentiating themselves from the Koizumi-led LDP.
Although the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan increased its Tokyo assembly seats by nine to 22, it failed in its attempt to become the second-largest force in the assembly.
Earlier, the DPJ, which outperformed the LDP in many urban constituencies in the Lower House election in June 2000, was aiming to double its strength in the Tokyo assembly to 26. But as it became clear that the “Koizumi effect” was spreading among urban voters, it had to revise its target down to 20.
Political commentator Kichiya Kobayashi said the LDP will enjoy a fairly good performance in the Upper House poll, but he added that the crucial moment for Koizumi will come after the election — when he has promised to actually carry out his reforms.
Long-term support for the Cabinet and the LDP “depends on whether his efforts toward reform will bear fruit after the election,” Kobayashi said.
The gloomy prospects for the nation’s economy, with sharp downturns predicted this summer, may weigh heavily on Koizumi, Kobayashi said. Further economic weakness could prompt many LDP lawmakers to oppose Koizumi’s reforms, which the prime minister admits will be painful to voters, he added.
To keep his opponents at bay, Koizumi will hold tight to his exclusive power to dissolve the Lower House and hold a snap election until he faces such challenges to his leadership, Kobayashi said, denying the once-rumored possibility of a simultaneous election in both chambers next month.
Narita of Suruga University agreed with Kobayashi, saying there is no guarantee that swing voters who turned out to support the LDP will remain loyal to the party.
“If they see that the LDP is opposing Koizumi’s reform policies, or conclude that Koizumi has failed to achieve satisfactory results, the volatile voters will instantly shift,” he said.
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