Yet another basic change has jolted Japan’s established regional power structure. This time around, it occurred in Sunday’s gubernatorial election in Tochigi Prefecture, in which “floating voters” succeeded in demonstrating their political power. Riding on the strength of such unorganized voters, a 52-year-old challenger overturned the 16-year-long reign of the incumbent governor, who had the backing of all the major political parties. Despite some local differences, the Tochigi electoral results represent an essential followup to what happened in the gubernatorial election in Nagano Prefecture last month. Grass-roots voters won out over those mobilized by the political establishment.
Mr. Akio Fukuda, former mayor of Imaichi City, a small city in western Tochigi, defeated Mr. Fumio Watanabe, the 71-year-old incumbent vying for a fifth term, with a slim margin of 875 votes. In the election, which saw a voter turnout of 45.63 percent, Mr. Fukuda collected 336,161 votes, Mr. Watanabe garnered 335,286 and a third candidate, supported by the Japanese Communist Party, got 34,009.
There were several crucial differences between the two major candidates. The two clearly differed in their approach to the controversial question of whether large-scale public-works projects should remain viable in this “postbubble period,” when balanced and pro-environmental social and economic development must be pursued. Their differences went further than a mere contrariety in their campaign slogans. Mr. Fukuda’s participation in the gubernatorial contest had been motivated by his opposition to the prefectural government’s plan to construct a large dam that the central government supports. Only three months ago, he mounted a challenge against Mr. Watanabe because he believed the current prefectural administration’s outright rejection of his opposition to the project reflected the higher political establishment’s failure to understand the democratic philosophy of delegating powers to lower administrative entities.
The fact that such an arrogant “politics of complacency” still prevails at the prefectural level of administration is the product of the pork-barrel politics that have long served as one of the key survival devices, especially for the Liberal Democratic Party, despite strong public criticism. In the case of Tochigi Prefecture, there was a long reign by a single governor who did not meet any effective opposition in the prefectural assembly. All political parties were in effect ruling alliances. Mr. Fukuda’s declaration of war against that kind of establishment surprisingly won support from many local people who had long felt disconnected from their prefectural administration. Most of these people, not only in Tochigi but also in many other areas, apparently consider the existing political parties discredited but have been frustrated by their powerlessness to effect change.
This time, however, nearly 1,000 volunteers with no political affiliations at all campaigned for Mr. Fukuda. It was mainly these people and the floating voters they mobilized who brought this important victory to a candidate with neither a fixed power base nor the kind of public eminence that Mr. Yasuo Tanaka drew on to win the October gubernatorial election in Nagano Prefecture. Obviously, this effort dashed Mr. Watanabe’s attempt to win a fifth term on the basis of an organized campaign with the support of more than 230 organizations in the prefecture. His reliance on traditional but declining political dynamics no longer served.
The victories of both Mr. Fukuda in Tochigi and Mr. Tanaka in Nagano terminated the long rule by bureaucrats-turned-governors who actually were fielded by major political parties. What is significant is that these changes occurred in prefectures that have been known for the dominance of reform-resistant conservative political forces. Winds forcing change upon the nation’s politics, both at the central and local levels, appear to be blowing in local elections.
The most notable aspect of this development is the fact that the established political parties, which continue to play a crucial role in national administration, have been prominently discredited by people who express their political decisions in local elections. Not only the LDP but also the other established parties are definitely the losers in these elections. Judging by these election results, Japan’s political parties seem to be unable to discern the most acute problem in the minds of the “silent majority.” Many voters are apathetic, not because they want to be disconnected from politics, but because the nation’s politics are simply not interesting enough to provide them with the needed motivation.
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