The unified series of gubernatorial, mayoral and prefectural and municipal assembly elections in April, held every four years, are deemed a key barometer of voter sentiment in national politics — this year in particular as they will be followed by the Upper House election in summer. But the elections also shed light on a critical situation in local politics — such as falling voter turnout and the growing number of local assembly seats that go uncontested in elections because there aren’t enough candidates to warrant races — that could shake the foundation of local autonomy.

Many of Japan’s regions are confronted with a host of challenges, including the unabated flight of people to Tokyo as the population rapidly grays and declines — which threatens the very survival of many depopulated municipalities — revitalization of regional economies left behind by the growth driven by Tokyo and other big metropolitan areas, and defense against severe natural disasters. Voters cannot afford to be uninterested in local elections, and political parties and their candidates need to contest the races in ways that rouse the voters’ interest and prompt them to go to the polls.

The elections are held in two stages. People will vote April 7 on gubernatorial elections in 11 prefectures — the campaign for which officially kicked off on Thursday — and mayoral races in six major cites such as Sapporo and Osaka, as well as local assembly races in 41 prefectures and 17 big cities. On April 21, voters will cast their ballots in the mayoral races in other municipalities and municipal assembly elections.

Voter turnout in the 10 gubernatorial elections held in 2015 was 47.14 percent — dropping below 50 percent for the first time — and the turnout in mayoral and local assembly races also fell to record lows. In an even more serious problem, 21.9 percent of all seats up for grabs in the prefectural assembly races were decided without a vote — as the number of candidates did not exceed the seats contested. Media reports suggest that the ratio could hit nearly 30 percent in the April elections. The shortage of people running for seats in local assemblies — attributed to the demographic woes in many rural areas — is more serious among smaller municipalities. In 2015, uncontested elections were held for as much as 65 percent of all assembly seats in municipalities with a population fewer than 1,000, while the corresponding figure was 27 percent among municipalities with a population between 1,000 and 10,000.

The “no-vote” elections that have spread among prefectures and municipalities across Japan pose serious questions about the system of local parliamentary democracy in that voters are being denied a chance to choose their representatives. Many younger people are said to hesitate to run for seats in local assemblies due to the ban on assembly members concurrently holding other jobs, or the low level of remuneration for assemblymen in small municipalities. In view of this growing problem, the national government has begun exploring reform of the local assembly system — with a study panel at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry proposing two options in changing the system — but concrete discussions have not made much progress.

Also cited as a factor behind the sluggish voter turnout in local elections is the lack of competition among political parties — with parties in ruling and opposition camps in national politics often jointly endorsing the same candidates in gubernatorial and mayoral elections. In the coming gubernatorial elections in 11 prefectures, Hokkaido is the only place where a candidate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is being challenged by a contender fielded by the largest opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

The opposition parties, dwarfed by Abe’s ruling coalition in all Diet elections since 2012, are having a hard time fielding their own candidates in local elections as well. The fact that local conservative camps were split and more than one conservative candidate is competing in the gubernatorial races in Fukui, Shimane, Tokushima and Fukuoka prefectures also testifies to the lack of challenges from opposition forces. Since local assembly members play crucial roles in the Diet election campaigns of their respective parties, the poor presence of many of the opposition parties in the April elections bode ill for the efforts to rebuild their local organizations and turn around their fortunes in national politics.

The April races are the first nationwide elections since legislation was enacted last year urging political parties to close the gender gap between male and female candidates. However, media reports show that women still account for only 10 to 20 percent of prospective candidates in prefectural and assembly races. Each party must offer wider alternatives to voters to rouse their interest in the upcoming elections.

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