Substance, not usual campaign noise



News photo
Former Mie Gov. Masayasu Kitagawa gestures as Yamagata Gov. Hiroshi Saito – and Yoshito Hori, head
of the Globis Group, look on at a March 2 event in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward promoting use of platforms known
as manifestos in politics.

In politics Japan style, white-gloved candidates clutch clusters of microphones and try loudly to imprint their names and faces, instead of policies, on voters’ minds. Until now, they have spent lots of time bowing, shaking hands and shouting their names — and giving short shrift to the issues.

But that has been changing.

Take Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda, 55, who recounted how during one campaign four years ago he stood on the corner of a shopping arcade outlining his platform, which, like other politicians on the catch-word bandwagon, he termed his “manifesto” — his policy goals.

“People were slowly coming out of their houses to listen to me,” he recalled of that snowy day. After making the same pitch more than 300 times during the 17-day campaign, he won the election in a landslide.

So-called campaign manifestos, written specific policy initiatives and pledges, trace their roots to 19th century Britain, when parties started to lay out their platforms. Masuda and a handful of other gubernatorial candidates began calling their platforms manifestos about four years ago in a bid to modify the political landscape.

In the leadup to the April 8 local-level elections, manifestos are set to change the nature of campaigning.

Candidates for Diet elections jumped on the manifesto bandwagon when they were legalized in 2003. Unlike Britain, however, the Japanese versions are primarily used by candidates aiming for top municipal government posts and thus play a vital role in shaping local politics.

“The local manifesto was born of Japan’s political culture and climate,” said Masayasu Kitagawa, a professor of public management at Waseda University who served as Mie governor from 1995 to 2003.

A Public Offices Election Law revision takes effect Thursday that for the first time allows limited distribution of written manifestos during campaigning, which officially kicks off on the same day as the polls that will elect 13 governors, about 100 mayors and members of hundreds of municipal assemblies.

The election law originated in the early 1900s, an era of growing democracy. It aimed to level the political playing field by limiting the number of posters and postcards wealthy candidates could distribute. This, it was hoped, would give a leg up to candidates with smaller budgets.

Over time, however, the law acquired a seemingly undemocratic veneer. Article 142, for example, prohibits candidates from distributing “documents” — including manifestos — after official campaigning begins. There are a few exceptions, but overall, it prevents candidates from making clear policy vows in print in the days before voters head to the polls.

In the past, jumping the gun by unveiling a platform before campaigning officially began was problematic. To get around this, candidates would unveil their policy goals without directly referring to the elections themselves.

No printed manifestos were handed out after the campaign was launched. But candidates could post their general policy positions on Web sites beforehand and leave them up indefinitely.

Still, because those manifesto statements were legally classified as “documents” under the law, once campaigns got under way, the sites could not be updated.

The revision will leave in place the restriction against updating Web sites. But it will allow candidates, including local-level ones, to hand out a limited number of written policy pledges even after campaigning has officially begun.

However, in keeping with the approximately century-old notion that publication costs should be capped, they must be printed on one page no larger than 210 mm by 297 mm.

The revision will likely prompt candidates in most of the 13 prefectures holding polls to pen manifestos, said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University’s graduate school of media and governance.

“They’ll worry that if voters think they can’t write manifestos, they’ll lose,” Sone said. Indeed, according to a poll in late February by the major daily Mainichi Shimbun, 47 out of 49 candidates running in the 13 gubernatorial and four key mayoral elections said they either planned to issue manifestos or were considering doing so.

Sone pointed out one notable example.

In the January election to fill a sudden vacancy in the Miyazaki governor’s set, former TV comedian Hideo Higashikokubaru — better known as Sonomanma Higashi — issued a manifesto pledging reforms.

That move helped Higashikokubaru knock out candidates backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, raising eyebrows across the political establishment, Sone said.

Because local-level politicians have been financially dependent on the central government for such a long time, they have not had much flexibility in policymaking. Thus, experts say the three most decisive factors in local elections are how much money a candidate has, how much fame and how many loyal votes.

But the focus on platform policy pledges indicates Japan’s typically apolitical population now wants more from its leaders, experts say.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Japanese news media from March 3 to 4, almost half of the respondents said the most important factor in the upcoming elections was “(candidate) manifestos and the policies listed.” That figure dwarfed the 17.2 percent who said “close relations with their constituency” and the 27.6 percent who said “personality.”

Riding the same wave, on Feb. 7 a network of politicians and nonprofit organizations launched a push with the slogan: “Read the Manifesto, Then Vote!”

“Japanese electoral campaigns once consisted of blaring ‘wish lists’ ” that didn’t specify policy goals or timetables, said Kitagawa, who helps lead the “Read the Manifesto” campaign.

With so many candidates expected to issue manifestos for the April elections, both them and their electorates will need to participate more actively in the democratic process.

Once committed to a specific platform, governors will be that much harder-pressed to persuade assemblies to fall in line or cut ties with interest groups hampering the agenda. They will also need to communicate their political activities to the public to avoid taking the blame when their best efforts are undermined by rivals.

Meanwhile, the media, nonprofit organizations and voters themselves will need to keenly observe this process to judge how well the winners keep their promises.

“Writing manifestos is one thing,” said Keio’s Sone. “But carrying them out is a different story.”

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