The Dec. 14 Lower House election was many things. But in terms of domestic politics, it was merely a prelude to something far more important: the nationwide local elections next April.
Even as debate continues about whether the election weakened Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, strengthened coalition partner Komeito, showed Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) could still garner support, reinvigorated the Japanese Communist Party or sounded the death knell for extreme right-wing parties and politicians, all eyes have turned to April 12 and 26, 2015, when nearly 1,000 local governments, from prefectural assemblies to small villages, hold elections for governor, mayor and their legislative bodies.
National-level politicians have had their eye on the April elections for a while now.
Since September, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party in particular have been talking up and promising assistance to different regions, at the sometimes nervous insistence of local LDP leaders worried that the party’s Diet members have paid insufficient attention to Japan outside of Tokyo and the bread-and-butter (or perhaps rice-and-miso soup) issues local voters expect politicians to address.
For Kansai, Sunday’s Lower House election result and what it means for next April likely depends on three things. First, whether the unexpectedly strong showing of Ishin no To, co-headed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, will also benefit his local political group Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka).
Before the election, Ishin no To was widely predicted to lose as many as half of its 42 Lower House seats to LDP or Democratic Party of Japan candidates. But voters returned 41 Ishin members to the Diet.
Osaka Ishin members hold pluralities in the Osaka Municipal and Prefectural assemblies. Hashimoto, and Osaka Ishin, have staked their entire existence on being able to merge the city and prefecture. However, opposition from all of the other parties, including Hashimoto’s nominal local partner Komeito, has prevented this from happening.
With the LDP and Komeito agreeing to field candidates locally against Osaka Ishin in April, the party could find its strength further reduced.
According to a Mainichi Shimbun prediction, 31 of the 53 single-seat districts in Osaka Prefecture will be up for grabs in April, but, thanks to the LDP-Komeito cooperation agreement, Osaka Ishin will only win only two, with the other 29 going to the ruling coalition.
The second factor in who wins what in Kansai is related to the first. Hashimoto wants to tie up with those from the DPJ’s more conservative wing — especially those who are not beholden to the Rengo trade union confederation or strong unions in general. Prominent DPJ politicians mentioned by pundits as possibly joining Hashimoto include Seiji Maehara, who represents Kyoto, as well as Goshi Hosono, who represents Shizuoka but was born, raised and went to school in Shiga and Kyoto prefectures.
“We’re happy to cooperate with those DPJ members who share our goals. But not DPJ members like Kiyomi Tsujimoto,” said Osaka Gov. and Ishin Secretary-General Ichiro Matsui during a recent television appearance with Tsujimoto, a liberal Lower House member from Osaka who is strongly backed by workers’ unions.
The DPJ and Ishin are already working to forge a cooperation agreement for at least some races in Kansai next April. In Kyoto, where Hashimoto and Ishin are generally unpopular because they’re seen as crude loudmouths from neighboring Osaka, the two parties are plotting a strategy that would ensure no Ishin candidate runs in the same district as a DPJ candidate for the Kyoto Municipal and Prefectural assembly elections.
If this “Kyoto connection” by the DPJ and Ishin produces satisfactory results, it would likely lead to other efforts by the parties’ leaders to cooperate, at the local level at least.
Finally, the other issue likely to play a major role in the April elections, and one the newly elected, or re-elected, Lower House members from Kansai will have to carefully manage, is the question of reactor restarts and electricity supply.
With the announcements last week that the Nuclear Regulation Authority had cleared reactors 3 and 4 at the Takahama plant, helping smooth the way for Kansai Electric Power Co. to restart them next year, and that Kepco is planning to raise prices by as much as 10 percent next April not because of a projected rise in fuel costs, but to improve its bottom line, local voters are angry at the utility.
The Takahama reactors are unlikely to be restarted until after the April elections. But the NRA decision has put the problem in a political spotlight the LDP had hoped to avoid.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.