When candidates from the new local group Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan) led by Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura won the triple elections held in Aichi Prefecture in February, the group’s tax cut initiative seemed to have gained momentum.
But after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan, that was no longer the case. In the April 24 by-election for the House of Representatives seat for the Aichi No. 6 constituency, voters did not support the candidate backed by Genzei Nippon.
This defeat was a severe blow to Kawamura as well as his ally, Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, who was looking to sway national politics. As it is unlikely that a general election will take place anytime soon, the two politicians are being forced to rethink their strategy in light of the disaster and recovery efforts.
It was on the afternoon of April 4 when journalist Masayo Kawamura, 44, received a call from Mayor Kawamura.
“I’ve made up my mind to endorse you. I am counting on you,” the mayor told the journalist, who had just finished proofreading articles for the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine in Tokyo. On the next day, just a week before the start of the election campaign on April 12, Kawamura declared her candidacy.
With Genzei Nippon forces victorious in the Aichi gubernatorial and Nagoya mayoral elections and the referendum for the dissolution of the city assembly two months ago, Mayor Kawamura seemed comfortable when he was asked by Omura to choose a candidate to represent the Aichi No. 6 district in the Lower House in February.
Mayor Kawamura was targeting female candidates for the by-election. Initially, the short list of candidates included a former anchor at a local TV station and a member of the Upper House who is close to Ichiro Ozawa, the shadowy kingmaker of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. The group demonstrated its overwhelming strength as other names appeared on the candidate list.
But after March 11, however, Genzei Nippon started facing difficulty fielding a candidate. As voters paid less attention to the poll, it became too difficult to gain support from the swing voters who had helped the group advance in the first place. Yet the group consistently sought out a female candidate in its pursuit of a fresh image and shortened the list. As the deadline approached, it finally succeeded in persuading journalist Kawamura, who had previously declined to run. By this time, however, she was already late in starting her campaign.
Genzei Nippon’s other miscalculation was failing to gauge the implications of the DPJ’s failure to field its own candidate in the by-election.
If a DPJ-backed candidate had run, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s disaster response would have been the focal issue of the campaign and prompted active debate between the ruling and opposition camps. Unlike the February polls, the by-election lacked enthusiasm from the start, and this didn’t help the group garner votes from nonaligned voters and others discontent with the ruling bloc.
Mayor Kawamura’s bloc instead took aim at the Liberal Democratic Party-backed contender, Hideki Niwa, 38, deriding him for inheriting his political standing from his grandfather, a former Lower House member and labor minister.
But this politicking ended up being overshadowed by disaster-related issues.
LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki criticized Kawamura’s tax cut pledge by tapping voters’ emotions, saying, “Japanese must unite, otherwise we can’t recover from this crisis. In such a situation, appealing for a tax cut is irresponsible.”
In the final stage of the campaign, an executive from the Kawamura camp mentioned that voter sentiment had changed since the quake: “The disaster has heightened people’s attention to safety and security, and they have become emotionally conservative, indicating a resistance to reform.”
However, a Chunichi Shimbun exit poll showed that a majority of voters had positively assessed Genzei Nippon’s challenge to national politics by saying its ranks “give more choice to voters” and “they help vitalize the central government.”
Failing to get their voice heard during the campaign was another cause of their defeat despite such favorable responses.
After the triple elections in February, Mayor Kawamura and Gov. Omura joined hands for the Nagoya assembly poll in March, the Aichi assembly poll in April and had targeted national politics as their next goal.
At one point, there was speculation that Ozawa, who keeps in close touch with Mayor Kawamura, may form a new party with Genzei Nippon with 20 to 30 other DPJ members.
But the Nagoya mayor’s latest defeat has forced him to come up with a new strategy. There will be no immediate chance for the group to influence national politics again as a general election is unlikely anytime soon.
The group now faces the risk of shattering its “unbeaten record” myth, which could affect the city administration as well as that of the prefecture.
Genzei Nippon has now become the largest group in the Nagoya Municipal Assembly, but its members are all rookies actually elected by Kawamura supporters. If these voters stop supporting the mayor, “the party could blow up in the air”, said a source close to the group.
Meanwhile, in the Aichi assembly, Gov. Omura and LDP assembly members may struggle over the leadership of the assembly because it was the LDP that won the by-election.
“Now, the Kawamura-Omura coalition has completely lost its momentum,” said an executive of the LDP’s prefectural chapter. It is going to ask the governor to rethink its tax-cut pledge.
This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by local daily Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 25.