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What role did the nation’s political parties play in the first round of the current nationwide local elections Sunday? True, the parties supported many candidates who ran for gubernatorial or mayoral posts in some prefectures or for seats in prefectural or municipal assemblies. But in most of those local polls, only the Japan Communist Party independently fielded its own candidates; this is, however, a well-known survival technique of the JCP.

Indeed, in some places, it was as if Japan had no established political parties, a case in point being Osaka Prefecture, where the incumbent governor, with no party affiliation, was re-elected without any competition to speak of. This represents a sort of meltdown of the role of party politics in a democratic society. If a political party is to be a responsible entity, it must put up specific policies on key issues and should seek voters’ endorsement of its policies through elections. In a democracy, there are many more functions for a political party than simply winning in polls.

This is a textbook definition of some of the essential roles a political party should play. But Japan’s major parties seem to have given up such basic roles, especially in local elections. Several reasons can be cited. Even in Japan, the demise of Soviet communism has fatally reduced the political appeal of both communism and socialism, causing most leftist parties to dissolve into liberal or neutral political entities. This has substantially diluted the policy differences between political parties. At the same time, this trend has been given further momentum by the aligning and realigning of parties since the end of the Liberal Democratic Party’s one-party rule in 1993.

Another reason is the persistent public distrust of political parties or, to be more exact, of the nation’s party politics, which have long played second fiddle to the bureaucracy. Most voters long ago stopped taking for granted that political parties’ election campaign slogans would ever be implemented. Too often, even the most fundamental slogans and policies have been watered down by bureaucrats in the process of writing those proposals into law. If a proposed policy is likely to directly affect the bureaucrats — structural-reform proposals, for example — its doom is even more assured.

This only adds to the public’s distrust of political parties and party politics, which in turn causes even more voters to lose interest in trying to choose their political representatives on the basis of their party affiliation. As a result, the parties are less enthusiastic about fielding their own candidates under the banner of clear-cut party policies, especially in local elections. And the people, particularly those who are nonpolitical to start with, are increasingly likely to vote for candidates out of different motives.

A typical example of this was seen this week in Tokyo, where Mr. Shintaro Ishihara — a prize-winning writer, the elder brother of the late superstar Yujiro Ishihara and a former LDP Diet member — scored an overwhelming victory over all the candidates fielded by the major political parties. Running as an independent, he had no party backing. His victory is attributed to largely personal factors and an array of slogans pompous enough to suggest a politician aspiring to great leadership. Obviously, the outcome of Tokyo’s gubernatorial election was determined mostly by voters with no party affiliation.

With no solid party support in the chambers of the Metropolitan Assembly, however, it is doubtful that Mr. Ishihara will be able to carry through his campaign policies, including the removal of Yokota Air Base in the western suburbs of Tokyo. This is a problem for the central governments of Japan and the United States to deal with. Mr. Ishihara will also have to try to break through the notorious stone wall built up over many years by the bureaucrats.

An independent candidate can win in an important election on the strength of nonpolitical factors and grandiose slogans that are not endorsed by any specific political party. But the end result of such a victory is liable to further erode public confidence in politics. We have just learned such a lesson from the failure of Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima, whose administration is winding up as a typical political anticlimax. It is a sobering reminder that Mr. Aoshima took office on a wave of fervent popular support.

The low-profile posture assumed by the nation’s major political parties provokes the suspicion that, by so doing, they have attempted to win the support of nonpolitical voters. But this tactic will not serve to revive such voters’ active interest in party politics. In fact, it could go a long way toward undermining party politics in Japan even further.

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