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A round of local elections will take place next month in Japan, with the issues of autonomy and decentralization setting the tone. Campaigning for gubernatorial elections, including the one in Tokyo, will kick off today. A total of more than 2,370 elections, including mayoral and prefectural assembly elections, will be held on April 13 and 27.

These are the first unified local elections since the turn of the century. Three years ago, the Diet passed legislation aimed at establishing a more balanced and cooperative relationship between the central and local governments. The law has since prompted an array of local measures to bolster autonomy, such as the issuance of eco-friendly ordinances and levies of new types of tax.

Many diverse issues are at stake in the coming elections. A municipal merger is one. The main idea is to improve administrative efficiency by combining neighboring cities, towns and villages. It remains to be seen, however, whether such integration will bring the hoped-for benefits of decentralization. Residents are divided on this issue.

The coming polls are also the first since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came to office in April 2001. The timing may not be good for the central government’s ruling coalition, as Mr. Koizumi’s structural-reform plans have made little progress. With the deflation-mired economy slipping back into recession, his once-popular slogans for economic revival are losing their appeal.

Public approval ratings for the Koizumi administration have followed a downward curve recently. Economically, the war in Iraq could not have come at a worse time. The outcome of local elections is a bellwether for national politics. Unfavorable results for the governing parties will embolden the opposition parties, possibly affecting the timing of Lower House dissolution and a subsequent general election.

Generally, many of the elections, including 12 gubernatorial races, stand out in a variety of ways. First, the role of political parties is declining. In the last round four years ago, many successful candidates were supported, officially or otherwise, by various parties. This time around, many are running independently; some have even rejected offers of support.

Other features include strong voter opposition to multiple-term governors and mayors, support for more female candidates — running in the Tokyo race is a noted female news commentator — and wider participation by younger candidates. Also notable is a marked drop in the number of candidates backed jointly by the ruling and opposition parties. This trend is seen particularly in gubernatorial and mayoral elections. For example, only two prefectures have “straddling candidates” for governor.

The growing popularity of independent candidates is proof that political parties are losing their influence in local politics as well. One likely reason for this is the apparent inability of the Liberal Democratic Party to rid itself of money politics. It is also likely that many voters are disillusioned with the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, which seems unable, if not unwilling, to map out a credible plan for taking the reins of power.

The waning influence of established parties also reflects the increasing authority of local government heads. This is demonstrated, for example, by increasing attempts to create new taxes, including environmental levies. In addition, plans for municipal integration and “town-building” will be key issues in many elections.

Openness in administration is also high on the list of campaign themes. Since the last round of elections, considerable progress has been made in getting governmental entities to disclose public information. Now under way or consideration are measures to introduce an evaluation system for public projects, ensure transparency in administration and promote residents’ participation in the decision-making process.

In all of this, reformist and independent governors have had pioneering roles. Also, many local government heads, determined to overcome traditional pork-barrel politics, have been trying to reflect residents’ voices directly in their policies, instead of relying on the joint support of political parties.

The drive for local initiative is expected to intensify during the election campaigns. One significant development is the trend in which candidates draw up a “manifesto,” spelling out their policies and plans in specific terms instead of just shouting vague promises and lofty slogans. Hopefully, this will put policy in the driver’s seat in the coming elections, with the primary focus on the interests of residents.

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