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Campaigning has started for 12 gubernatorial elections, including the all-important race for Tokyo governor. These are part of a series of local elections to be held in April, the results of which will have a significant impact on national politics. As it enters the 21st century, Japan must implement drastic political, economic and social reforms on both the national and local levels. Amid the recession, local authorities are plagued by fiscal, welfare, environmental and many other problems. Efforts must be made to create a kind of local politics befitting a new age of decentralized power.

Elections will be held April 11 for 12 governorships, the mayor of Sapporo, members of 44 prefectural assemblies and members of the municipal assemblies in 11 major cities. On April 25, there will be ballots for heads of other local governments and members of other local assemblies. Gubernatorial elections will be held in Hokkaido, Iwate, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Fukui, Mie, Osaka, Tottori, Shimane, Fukuoka, Saga and Oita prefectures. Except in Tokyo and Osaka, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and opposition parties have put up joint candidates.

Establishment parties took a drubbing in the local elections held in 1995. Those results reflected the will of floating voters. The unexpected victories of former comedians Mr. Yukio Aoshima and Mr. “Knock” Yokoyama, both independents, in the Tokyo and Osaka gubernatorial races were tantamount to a public rejection of party politics. Politicians have an obligation to eliminate public distrust of party politics.

Attention is focused on the red-hot contest in Tokyo, which is being fought by six main candidates. There is growing speculation that none of them will win the required 25 percent of ballots, forcing a second round of voting. This election must not turn into a superficial popularity contest; all candidates must engage in serious policy debates. In Osaka, meanwhile, the Japan Communist Party is the only major party to field its own candidate to fight the incumbent, Mr. Yokoyama.

The last gubernatorial elections saw some tough confrontations between the LDP and the now defunct opposition party Shinshinto. In this year’s races, however, there will be no LDP-opposition confrontation, except in Tokyo. The LDP is joining opposition forces to back incumbents in Hokkaido, Iwate and Mie, where it lost the previous elections. The tendency for the LDP and the opposition to join forces reflects a desire among opposition members, except for those in the JCP, to lean toward the ruling party.

Governors appear to like this arrangement, in that it facilitates assembly proceedings. Yet a Kyodo News survey shows that the number of prospective candidates in prefectural assembly elections, especially the number of independents, is greater than in previous polls. This shows that candidates are distancing themselves from political parties to win floating votes.

Local politics should not necessarily jibe with national politics, but all political parties should compete over policies. That will help revitalize local politics. All political parties have made their election promises, including measures to stimulate the economy, create jobs, increase welfare benefits and refine environmental policies. In keeping with the mood for decentralization, other proposals call for the transfer of taxing powers from the central government to local authorities and an overhaul of the government subsidy system. These platforms sound appealing, but policy proposals must be achievable; otherwise they will not enjoy voter support.

A recent opinion poll showed that 70 percent of respondents objected to the joint backing of candidates by various parties in local elections; 45 percent disapproved of policy tieups by different sets of parties in national and local politics — an ominous development given voter rejection of establishment parties in 1995. Polls show a sharp increase in public criticism of tieups by different sets of parties in national and local politics.

If history is a guide, these elections will usher in yet more change in national politics. After the previous vote, the ruling coalition of the LDP, the Social Democratic Party and the New Party Sakigake dissolved, and the LDP formed a ruling coalition with the Liberal Party. Political realignment has progressed, following the dissolution of Shinshinto and the establishment of the Democratic Party of Japan and New Komeito. Clearly, far more is at stake in this year’s vote than is evident at first glance. Next month’s elections demand the full attention of voters and politicians.

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