The first half of the nationwide series of local elections — in which people voted on Sunday to elect governors of 11 prefectures, members of assemblies in 41 prefectures as well as mayors and assembly members of some of the designated major cities — once again highlighted the steady support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party on the one hand and the continuing weakness of the opposition parties on the other. The elections, held every four years this season, also underlined declining voter turnout and the problem of a growing proportion of seats in local assembly races that are won without a vote because not enough candidates emerge to necessitate a contest. Steps need to be taken to address that problem, which deprives voters of choices in elections and even the opportunity to vote.
In the prefectural assembly elections, the LDP won a total of 1,158 seats out of the 2,277 up for grabs in the 41 prefectures, retaining a total majority and securing a single-party majority in the assemblies of 25 prefectures. An LDP-backed candidate defeated the contender jointly supported by key opposition parties in the gubernatorial race in Hokkaido — a traditional stronghold of the former Democratic Party of Japan.
In Osaka, however, the LDP lost to the incumbents of the local political group Osaka Ishin no Kai, who sought to swap roles as governor and mayor. In two of the four prefectures where conservative votes were split over the gubernatorial races, the LDP-backed contenders lost to the other conservative candidates, including an incumbent in Fukuoka — a result that could potentially sow the seeds of division within the party as it braces for the Upper House election this summer.
The opposition camp, which remains dwarfed by Abe’s ruling coalition in national politics, also came up short in the local elections, as symbolized by the loss of the opposition-endorsed candidate in Hokkaido — the only race among the 11 prefectures in which the largest opposition force, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), managed to compete with the LDP in gubernatorial elections.
Of the parties that have their origins in the DPJ, the CDP increased its total number of assembly seats in the 41 prefectures by 31 to 118, but the Democratic Party for the People, the second-largest opposition force, saw its total strength pared by 59 to 83. The two parties combined claimed 201 seats — far short of the 264 won by the DPJ in the 2015 elections.
The sluggish results reflect the weakness of their local organizations, which have been battered by a series of breakup and regrouping of the opposition forces these past years. Their inability to rebuild their local organizations bode ill for their fortunes in Diet elections, including the Upper House race, since local assembly members serve as key vote-gathering machines in those elections.
The poor performance of the opposition forces was a key factor behind the sluggish competition in the local elections as a whole. The number of candidates fielded by the two top opposition parties combined in the prefectural assembly races was lower than a quarter of those who ran on the LDP’s tickets, enabling the ruling party to dominate the seats up for grabs in many constituencies.
As many as 612 of the 2,277 assembly seats in the 41 prefectures — or a record 27 percent of the total, up from 22 percent in 2015 — were decided without a vote on the day the official campaign started in late March, as not enough candidates emerged to contest them. Of the total 945 electoral districts in assembly races in the 41 prefectures, no votes were held at all in 371, or nearly 40 percent of the total. The no-vote election is not a problem limited to rural depopulated areas — it also affected urban constituencies in big metropolitan areas.
As no-vote elections become more widespread in the prefectural assembly races, the average voter turnout sagged to a new low of 44.08 percent. The problems of no-vote elections and falling turnout are even more serious among smaller municipalities — many of which will hold their mayoral and assembly races in the latter half of the local elections later this month — as fewer people seek the position of assembly members in the falling and rapidly aging local population.
National-level discussions for reform of the local assembly system to suit the situation in the depopulated towns and villages — where sustainability of the local assembly itself is increasingly in doubt — are making little progress.
Whatever is behind the problem, voters cannot be expected to hold a strong interest in local elections — or even in local autonomy — if they are not given choices or chances to vote in the elections. That poses a serious challenge for the nation’s local autonomy system. The problem needs to be urgently addressed.