Nagano voters on Sunday chose a steady and stable style of politics over maverick leadership often characterized by theatrics, confrontation and confusion. Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, a reform-minded ex-novelist, sought a third term but was defeated by Mr. Jin Murai, a former state minister for national disaster prevention in the first Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Mr. Murai’s margin of victory was fairly wide at 78,000 votes, but this does not mean Nagano voters have lost interest in the reform of prefectural politics. Gov. Tanaka’s years of reform have heightened their political consciousness. They will be carefully watching what policies the new governor chooses to pursue.
Mr. Tanaka, who took office in October 2000, aimed to tear down the politics of vested interests and politics dictated by the Nagano prefectural government bureaucracy. Lacking organization-based support, he relied on voluntary campaigning by independent voters. To bring politics closer to the people, he repeatedly held discussion meetings with local residents. In a symbolic move, he went as far as to have glass walls installed in his office so his constituents could watch him work. In his latest election campaign, Mr. Tanaka boasted that his six years of governorship have led Nagano residents to freely express their opinions on prefectural politics.
He put forth one attention-getting policy after another: halting construction of dams, abolishing a reporters’ club at the prefectural government, pushing a policy that would limit class sizes to 30 students, and setting up nursing-care centers. He also advocated financial reconstruction and succeeded in reducing the amount of outstanding prefectural government bonds for five consecutive years, making Nagano the only prefecture to do so.
To implement reforms more rapidly, Mr. Tanaka used a top-down decision-making style. This method caused considerable friction with the prefectural assembly, prompting it to pass a no-confidence motion against him in July 2002. Mr. Tanaka made a comeback, however, winning the election that was subsequently held by a margin of more than 400,000 votes.
Nonetheless, Sunday’s election result suggests that many voters have become tired of Mr. Tanaka’s aggressive, theatrical political style (he once demonstrated the vulnerability of the Juki Net, an electronic national residency network, by ordering the prefectural government to try to hack into it. The attempt was successful). Mr. Tanaka’s maverick political style stiffened the attitude of the prefectural assembly, leading it to make numerous revisions to his budgets. In fact, of the 58 members of the assembly, only 13, six of them members of the Japan Communist Party, supported him in the latest election campaign. In a poll held in March, just 4.1 percent of the members of the prefectural government employees’ labor union said that Mr. Tanaka’s administration had improved the direction of prefectural politics.
By June, Mr. Tanaka’s popularity rating had dipped to 48 percent, a steep drop from its peak of 85 percent. But interestingly, about 60 percent of the voters supported the overall direction of Mr. Tanaka’s reforms. Even Mr. Murai praised the general ideas behind his rival’s reforms.
Mr. Murai’s career strikes a contrast with that of Mr. Tanaka. A former bureaucrat of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, he spent 20 years as a Diet member until choosing not to run in last September’s general elections. In 2005, he opposed Mr. Koizumi’s postal reform. In his campaign for the Nagano governorship he sold himself as a professional political administrator and relied on the vote-garnering power of business organizations and support associations of prefectural assembly members close to the Liberal Democratic Party. But his support base could become a liability if its members pressure Mr. Murai to support their special interests rather than policies that benefit the general public.
Apart from Mr. Tanaka, another loser in the gubernatorial election may be the Democratic Party of Japan. It was unable to field its own candidate. DPJ members of the prefectural assembly and the Nagano prefectural branch of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, a traditional supporter of the DPJ, backed Mr. Murai. Toward the last phase of the campaign, however, DPJ Party leader Mr. Ichiro Ozawa voiced support for Mr. Tanaka. The election result shows the urgent need for the No. 1 opposition party to nurture a strong organizational base that will enable it to field its own candidates in coming gubernatorial elections.
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