Junichiro Koizumi’s structural reform drive may have the backing of voters in big cities, but people in Hokkaido and other rural regions feel abandoned by the prime minister.
Or so says Muneo Suzuki, a Hokkaido native and former LDP lawmaker currently on trial on bribery charges.
Suzuki, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent in the House of Councilors election last month, claims that Koizumi’s urban-oriented policies led to the defeat of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the election.
In a recent interview in Tokyo, Suzuki criticized Koizumi for slashing public works projects in areas like Hokkaido that lack sufficient infrastructure, including roads and sewers.
“Koizumi should carry out his policies in accordance with the conditions of each prefecture,” he said. “Some prefectures cannot survive under Koizumi’s reform policies and that is when politics should step in.”
The government sliced public works projects to about 8.6 trillion yen in the fiscal 2004 budget, down about 7 percent from the fiscal 2002.
Despite the bribery scandal, Suzuki received some 485,000 votes in the Upper House race, or 17.5 percent of all votes cast in Hokkaido. Observers say some of these votes stemmed from a backlash against Koizumi’s policies.
Yoshio Nakagawa of the LDP and Naoki Minezaki of the Democratic Party of Japan won the two seats up for grabs in Hokkaido. Seven candidates vied for the two seats, with Suzuki coming in fourth place.
He is already gearing up his election campaign for the next House of Representatives election, though it is unlikely to be held anytime soon.
Suzuki stressed that building more expressways is essential in Hokkaido, the biggest prefecture, to meet with emergency needs such as disaster relief.
“Why should I be criticized for trying to create an environment to protect our people?” he asked.
During his years as a lawmaker, Suzuki was well-known for his high-handed tactics in pressuring bureaucrats to allocate funds for public works projects in his home district.
He says politicians need this kind of toughness to meet requests from governors, mayors and other local government leaders.
“If a politician cannot bring benefits to his hometown, there is no way he can bring benefits to his nation,” he said.
Suzuki is on trial for allegedly accepting 11 million yen in bribes from two Hokkaido companies in return for doing favors for them. Prosecutors last month demanded a four-year sentence and a fine of 11 million yen. A ruling is expected to be handed down later this year.
During the interview, Suzuki said he did nothing wrong.
He was arrested in June 2002 but refused to resign from the Lower House. He was released on bail last August, and he automatically lost his seat when the lower chamber was dissolved in October for a general election Nov. 9.
Suzuki said Koizumi’s controversial local taxation reform is also a source of discontent among local governments.
He pointed out that the national government is passing its work on to local governments without giving them the necessary amount of tax resources.
“Although the government calls for decentralization, local governments need resources to make decisions at their own discretion,” he said.
Reforming local taxation is a pet Koizumi project in which the central government cuts down on subsidies and transfers a total of 3 trillion yen in tax revenues to local governments by the end of fiscal 2006.
However, the national government only transferred about 650 billion yen in tax resources in the fiscal 2004 budget while at the same time it cut down on some 3 trillion yen in subsidies, prompting criticism from the local level.
Kenji Takagi, a researcher at the Japan Research Institute for Local Government, says the government should abolish public works subsidies and transfer tax resources to local governments so they can make decisions on the size and cost of each project. Currently, the national government decides on the amount of subsidies for each project.
But Takagi also suggested that the local governments shift their focus from construction-oriented public works projects, such as building roads and bridges, to those involving information technology or other new industries.
“It is a good opportunity for local governments to consider what field they want to strengthen when tax resources are gradually being transferred to them,” Takagi said. “The policymaking ability of the local governments will be tested.”