Chiba sends a signal to the parties

Vernacular papers report that the governing Liberal Democratic Party will elect its new party president on April 22. The winner of that vote will become prime minister and will then launch his or her Cabinet on the following day. These reports are attributed to multiple — but all unidentified — sources in the party. This may not be extraordinary as far as the LDP is concerned, but it is incredible that a schedule for picking a successor is unfolding in public while Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori continues to deny, at least officially, that he will step down.

The reasoning is easy to understand. It appears that most Liberal Democrats are no longer confident of their and the party’s future if Mr. Mori continues to lead them. Yet no one in the party apparently dares to declare that he or she can restore the LDP’s lost strength. They are well aware that the nation’s political winds have been blowing strongly against established parties — and, in particular, the LDP under Mr. Mori.

This hostile environment was evident, for example, in Sunday’s Chiba gubernatorial election, in which Ms. Akiko Domoto, a former Upper House member with no party backing, scored a milestone victory over rivals supported by major parties. Her triumph followed similar upsets in the Nagano and Tochigi governorship races last October and November. With a crucial Upper House election set for July, the major parties — especially the LDP — face the urgent need to reconsider their campaign strategies. The key question is how to lure back voters disillusioned with party politics.

The political equation in Chiba, for many years an LDP stronghold, changed dramatically in last June’s Lower House election. Then, the ruling party lost to the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, in five of 12 single-seat districts. Voters in urban districts on the outskirts of Tokyo, particularly those with no party affiliation, tipped the balance: They cold-shouldered LDP-backed candidates.

This shift in voter sentiment was critical to Ms. Domoto’s triumph. Her main strength lay in her declared independence from all parties and from the grassroots appeal that came with it. That allowed her to collect hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated, anti-LDP votes, as had her colleagues in Nagano and Tochigi. In fact, her campaign was conducted and financed by numerous volunteer groups with no political strings. All three campaigns had one thing in common: A candidate detached from parties joined hands with equally nonpartisan volunteers.

Ms. Domoto and her campaigners had another advantage: the turmoil that has gripped the nation since the beginning of the year. Mr. Mori has continued to commit blunders; LDP legislators were arrested on charges of bribery; and a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat was indicted for stealing tens of millions of yen from a secret fund. The economy, meanwhile, has slogged along, creating further unrest in financial markets.

Those developments have shaken the LDP to its core. The party failed to unite its Chiba Prefectural Assembly members, who hold a 70-percent majority in the legislature. The party also failed to secure the full cooperation of New Komeito, the second-largest partner in the tripartite LDP-led coalition.

The biggest problem, however, was the mass retreat of voters who had supported the LDP in past elections. In the latest poll, the party’s candidate, Mr. Ryozo Iwase, a former Upper House legislator, garnered only 28 percent of the vote. This raises the possibility that the party might not be able to win a seat in the two-seat Chiba constituency in the upcoming Upper House election.

The Chiba election also showed that the DPJ faces a crisis of its own, despite its impressive performance in last year’s general election. Proof is not hard to find. The party’s approval ratings in recent opinion polls have stayed flat, even as those for the LDP have declined. Probably the biggest reason for this is the main opposition party’s inability to mount an organized offensive against the error-prone LDP.

The deep voter distrust of partisan politics is a problem of the parties’ own making. Yet they are unable, if not unwilling, to develop credible plans to restore public trust. That is part of the explanation for low voter turnout. In Chiba’s case, only 38 percent went to the polls, even though this was eight points higher than the last vote. To win elections, local or national, the parties must attack the root of voter mistrust.

For the LDP, the problem is the lack of transparency and accountability that is evident in the ongoing selection of the party president. The party seems to be standing still in torrential rains, oblivious to the fact that it is sinking deeper into the mud. Without serious effort to escape from the quagmire, its demise is a near-certainty.