Nagano Prefecture, whose assembly ousted a dam-decrying governor in a no-confidence vote last month, is set to elect a new leader on Sept. 1. Campaigning started officially on Thursday with six candidates in the running, including former Gov. Yasuo Tanaka. The other five candidates are new faces with no party affiliations.

Mr. Tanaka, a popular novelist, won a landslide victory in a gubernatorial election in October 2000. His “down with dams” slogan struck a chord with many voters. Early last month, however, the prefectural assembly, dominated by prodam conservatives, gave him a thumbs down by an overwhelming majority. Mr. Tanaka declared at the time he would seek re-election. As the election nears, though, local reports say there appears to be no groundswell of enthusiasm among voters. The biggest reason, it seems, is that Mr. Tanaka’s rivals are not coming out openly against his antidam credo. That is odd, since it was his “no more dams” declaration that prompted the assembly to pass a no-confidence motion against him.

The immediate issue is whether to continue dam projects now under way in the prefecture. In the longer run, the question at stake is how to refashion a public investment policy tilted heavily toward dam construction. Mr. Tanaka tried to change that policy by attacking political taboos and bureaucratic rigidities. That is why, in the last election, conservative forces closed ranks against him to preserve vested interests.

That question has yet to be credibly answered. This time around, however, there is no clear-cut divide between dam opponents and proponents. As the dam issue goes, Mr. Tanaka appears to be facing little direct challenge from his rivals. What are we to make of this? Does this mean that opinion in favor of dam construction is losing ground?

There exists a reluctance to open a serious debate on whether to build more dams. It appears that most of the other candidates are trying to join the antidam bandwagon in subtle ways, arguing that phasing out dam-construction projects is OK but that the methods of doing so are not. In the absence of in-depth debate, attention seems focused on Mr. Tanaka’s character traits. But that is putting the cart before the horse. A serious dam debate must be conducted if the campaigning is to produce meaningful results. If new dams are not needed, alternative development projects must be developed. On that basis, long-range plans must be worked out to rebuild the deficit-ridden prefectural finances.

These are some of the things that must be discussed with voters. The question of methodology — how best to implement plans — also must be debated. Mr. Tanaka, it should be noted, was accused by the assembly of using “dogmatic and tactless” methods in pushing his reform agenda.

The dam issue is an integral part of administrative reform — a daunting task that will require destroying some of the traditional practices and systems that form the pyramidlike political structure of this conservative prefecture. The challenge, in other words, is to create a more democratic, modern system of governance unfettered by a culture of collusion.

Another thing that strikes us as strange is the wishy-washy stance of political parties. Mr. Tanaka is the only candidate with the explicit backing of an established party — the Japan Communist Party. One of the new-face candidates — Ms. Keiko Hasegawa who is a lawyer — is backed only implicitly by the Liberal Democratic Party. The Democratic Party of Japan, New Komeito and the Social Democratic Party have no candidates of their own. It is also strange that the assembly’s majority factions are backing independent candidates behind the scenes, instead of putting up their own candidates.

For a long time the electoral clout of political parties has been declining while uncommitted voters gain strength. The voter flight from parties will accelerate if established parties continue to hide their identities in major local elections. The rise of unaffiliated voters and campaigns managed by civic groups may have their own merits, but there is little to be gained from major parties watching largely from the sidelines.

In a way, voters in Nagano are bearing the brunt of the political confusion created by the clash between a reformist administrator and a hidebound assembly. The collision has put the prefectural administration off the rails. The forthcoming election should be the first step toward putting it back on track.

For that to happen, however, election issues must be clearly defined and debated thoroughly so that voters can make the best possible choices. Candidates must show voters how they significantly differ from each other in their basic approach to such issues.

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