The raison d’etre of established parties is in serious doubt following their serious setbacks in the April 11 local elections. A case in point was Shintaro Ishihara’s overwhelming victory in the Tokyo gubernatorial election. Ishihara, a former lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, now running as an independent, crushed major contenders backed by the LDP, the Democratic Party of Japan and New Komeito. Many of the LDP faithful apparently voted for Ishihara, as did many floating voters. Ishihara declared after the victory that the results showed that established parties had become “worthless.”
Except for the races in Tokyo and Osaka, 10 gubernatorial elections ended in victories for candidates jointly backed by the LDP and opposition forces. As far as local politics is concerned, most opposition parties have effectively joined the ruling camp. Lack of confrontation is likely to mark relations between the governors and prefectural assemblies — a disturbing sign for local politics.
The 44 prefectural assembly elections held on the same day give us good data for predicting the outcome of the next Lower House election. While the LDP suffered a setback, the Japan Communist Party recorded strong gains. The DPJ, which faced its first local election since it was founded, was unable to follow up on the solid gains it made in the Upper House election last July. The DPJ now faces the challenge of solidifying its local voter base and making a stronger appeal to floating voters.
The LDP is in serious trouble. Only 1,288 candidates fielded or backed by the party won the elections, the lowest ever in its history. The LDP fell short of winning the number of its seats up for re-election. In half of the nation’s prefectural assemblies, the LDP now lacks a majority. The voting rate for the LDP edged down 0.7 percentage points from the previous election, showing voters are distancing themselves from the party.
On the other hand, a record 152 JCP candidates were elected, compared with 170 DPJ and 166 New Komeito candidates. Votes for the JCP jumped 3.7 percent. The JCP consolidated its strength by adopting a more conciliatory policy stance and by taking votes away from other opposition parties that were often involved in dissolutions and mergers.
The Social Democratic Party, meanwhile, saw its strength in prefectural assemblies fall to only 94. The voting rate for the party dropped 8 points, indicating a sharp decline in its political fortunes.
Independents won the second largest number of seats, 698, and the second highest voting rate of 30 percent (up 3.5 percent), after the LDP. Many of the independents, however, received unofficial support from various political parties. This shows a growing trend for candidates to appeal to more voters by appearing to cut their ties to political parties.
The municipal assembly elections in 11 major cities, excluding the race in Kitakyushu, saw sharp decreases in the strength of the LDP and the SDP. The JCP and independents took compensating gains.
Women made strong gains in prefectural assemblies, winning a record 136 seats and accounting for 5 percent of all winners. There are now only three prefectural assemblies without women representatives, down from 10 before the elections.
The latest elections make me think of the 1983 local elections, which I covered as a deputy political news editor. In those elections, conservative-centrist alliances of the LDP, Komeito and the Democratic Socialist Party were common. It was the heyday of election alliances, and political parties eagerly jumped on the winning bandwagons. The Japan Socialist Party, the predecessor of the SDP, was at its worst. In some elections it was unable to field its own candidates and practically gave up the fight. In others, it supported candidates put up by other parties. The JSP, which was to suffer a long-term decline in the following years, suffered an erosion of its local voter base.
At that time, floating voters began to play a significant role in local elections. In Hokkaido, Takahiro Yokomichi was elected governor, thanks to support by a group of unaffiliated voters. This showed that political parties failed to sense voters’ changing political consciousness.
There are two problems associated with the practice of the ruling and opposition forces jointly backing candidates.
First it deprives voters of their right to make a choice. Political parties have effectively abandoned their responsibility by fighting elections without announcing their policy goals.
Second, this strategy leads to a lack of tension between local government heads (such as governors) and assemblies. There is no denying that some opposition parties, in tying up with the ruling camp, seek to receive political windfalls by using their influence in budget matters and local administrative affairs. Collusive ties between governors and prefectural assemblies go against voter interests.
Like the national government, local governments are troubled by serious fiscal problems. Long-term debts owed by the central government and local governments as of March 31 totaled 560 trillion yen, which far exceeded Japan’s nominal gross national product of 495 trillion yen. Of the total, local authorities accounted for 166 trillion yen, one-third of GNP.
All local governments, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, are required to make a balanced budget a priority. Declining birth rates and an aging population make it imperative that local authorities improve public welfare measures. They are under intense pressure to push fiscal and administrative reforms by reducing costs and cutting jobs.
Collusive ties between local governments and assemblies, through the practice of opposition parties tying up with the ruling camp, will never lead to efficient local administration.
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