Opposition must step up its game

The first round of unified local elections held on Sunday was marked by poor competition between the ruling camp and opposition parties in gubernatorial elections, prefectural assembly races and elections in some major cities. The opposition camp bears much of the blame for failing to provide voters with a meaningful alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc, which racked up another victory at the polls following its landslide wins in national elections in recent years.

Incumbents backed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won all 10 gubernatorial elections. The incumbents were challenged by candidates backed by the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan in only two prefectures: Hokkaido and Oita. The DPJ endorsed LDP-backed incumbents in six prefectures and was unable to field its own candidate in two prefectures including Mie, the home turf of party chief Katsuya Okada. It’s not too difficult to imagine that voter interest in elections where major parties do not compete would be poor. The average turnout in the gubernatorial races was a mere 47.14 percent.

The level of competition was also deplorable in the prefectural assembly races. When the official campaign kicked off on April 3, races for roughly 22 percent of all the seats in the 41 prefectures were over because not enough candidates emerged to necessitate elections in many constituencies. More than one in five prefectural assembly members won their seats uncontested, with LDP members accounting for about 70 percent of them. The LDP won 50.5 percent of the assembly seats up for grabs, securing a majority of the total seats contested in the unified elections that are held every four years for the first time since 1991. The party now holds assembly majorities in 24 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

The record ratio of uncontested seats may be an indication of declining public interest in serving in local assemblies. But it deprives voters of their right to have a say in local politics. Voter turnout in the assembly elections, unsurprisingly, hit a historic low of 45.05 percent. The sluggish competition in local elections may be nothing new, but the current situation is deplorable. Political parties must reflect on their inability to provide sufficient choices for voters.

The local elections served as the DPJ’s first test at the polls since Okada became party leader in January. But the number of candidates it fielded in the prefectural assembly elections was even lower than the combined seats it won four years ago. It ended up winning 264 seats across the country, down 82 from 2011 and less than a quarter of the total 1,153 seats captured by the LDP. While the victory of a DPJ-backed candidate in the Sapporo mayoral election may have put a dent in the LDP’s sweeping wins , the poor overall result bodes ill for the party’s bid for a turnaround, since local assembly members function as key election machine in national polls, including the next Upper House election in the summer of 2016.

In contrast with the DPJ’s setback, the Japanese Communist Party, which boosted its Lower House presence in the December election, again increased its seats in the prefectural assemblies. For the first time, the party now holds at least one seat in each of the nation’s 47 prefectural assemblies. While Sunday’s races were the first unified local elections for the second-largest opposition party, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), its local chapter Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) held its ground in the home turf of its founder Toru Hashimoto, increasing its pre-election strength to remain the largest force in both Osaka prefectural and municipal assemblies.

Still, the LDP’s alliance with its coalition partner Komeito dwarfs all other parties in the Diet, and their gains in the local elections are likely to embolden the Abe administration to forge ahead with its national agenda, including the controversial package of legislation that would enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense and expand the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions.