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In Sunday’s much-heralded gubernatorial election in Nagano Prefecture, former reformist Gov. Yasuo Tanaka made a triumphant comeback, dealing a heavy blow to anti-Tanaka forces and other conservative hardliners who have vehemently opposed his popular campaign against dam construction and other pork-barrel projects.

The popular writer lost the Nagano governorship two months ago when the prefecture’s predominantly conservative assembly passed a no-confidence vote against him, blaming him for being “dogmatic and thoughtless.” Tanaka’s re-election he was first elected in October 2000 means that he has won a fresh mandate from an overwhelming majority of Nagano voters.

This is not to say, however, that the simmering feud between Tanaka and the assembly has ended once and for all. In appearance at least, the two sides are back to square one. Absent a legislative election, the assembly’s makeup remains unchanged, and the issues at the core of the dispute, including what to do with dam projects, have yet to be resolved. Mending fences won’t be easy.

The election was a contest between Mr. Tanaka and his five rivals, all of them independents with no party affiliations. Mr. Tanaka, himself an independent, called for “constructive creation,” while the other candidates proposed their own versions of reform. But despite the high turnout of 74 percent four points higher than in the previous poll the campaign as a whole was low-key.

The biggest reason for this is that no hard-hitting debate was conducted on the all-important issue of dam construction. The media discussed it in depth, but the candidates themselves discretely avoided a direct confrontation. There was a general recognition that building more dams was not a viable option. But there was hardly any serious talk about alternative investment programs to replace dam projects or the related issue of how to clean up the financial mess.

Questions involving Mr. Tanaka himself, such as his perceived lack of administrative skill, were also shunted aside. A majority of voters pinned hopes on his leadership as a bold reformer, ignoring the assembly’s criticism that he was not fit to serve as governor. Rival candidates, while calling him a “populist” and a “dictator,” appealed for “dialogue.” But such ambivalence seems to have estranged many voters.

In particular, Mr. Tanaka’s chief opponent, Ms. Keiko Hasegawa, a lawyer, fell short of expectations. Prior to campaigning, she said she would stick to her independent line. Afterward, however, she changed her tack and solicited support or cooperation from conservative organizations, such as the assembly as well as city and town halls. This turnaround must have confused many voters.

The election is yet another reminder of the waning influence of major political parties in local elections. It is strange that no candidates were formally supported by any political parties. This is proof, sadly, that the tainted image of political parties, reinforced by a rush of corruption scandals, is swelling the ranks of unaffiliated voters. Mr. Tanaka’s triumph is also a triumph for “free” voters who support no particular parties.

The challenge for Mr. Tanaka is to improve relations with the assembly as soon as possible. Clearly, he is in a stronger position to do so as the assembly now finds itself on the defensive. It is as if Mr. Tanaka and the legislature have traded paces, with the legislators who voted to oust him two months ago having now received a de facto “no” vote from prefectural citizens.

But Mr. Tanaka should have no cause for complacency. His victory, dramatic as it is, does not mean that he has obtained carte blanche. There is no reason, of course, why he should follow questionable traditional practices of the past or abandon his unique style of governance. But it cannot be forgotten that during his previous administration he was also criticized by many for his self-righteous ways of dealing with problems.

The election’s most important message is that voters have reaffirmed the sense of crisis about Nagano that they shared in October 2000 the sense that the only way to save the prefecture is to destroy the structure of vested interests that stands in the way of reform. In this sense, Nagano is in the same boat as Japan itself.

Reform will be no easy task, as is painfully clear from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s sputtering drive for structural reform. But there is no other choice but to forge ahead. By the same token, there is no way Nagano can reform itself except through change. Establishing open and fair rules for dialogue between the prefectural administration and assembly is a first step in this direction. With an assembly election set for next Apri, there is no time to waste repeating petty squabbles.

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