Abe must accelerate local economic vitalization on strength of election win

The first round of the nationwide series of local elections has ended. Of the gubernatorial elections held in 10 prefectures as part of the unified local elections, two of them - the races in Hokkaido and Oita prefectures - drew strong attention as they were head-on contests between the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling camp and the opposition bloc. In both races, the ruling camp-backed incumbents were reelected to their fourth terms.

This outcome was presumably because voters recognising the practical accomplishments of the incumbents and the stability of their administrations outnumbered those who were sceptical about the harmful effects of reelecting incumbents multiple times.

In three gubernatorial races in and after July last year, the LDP saw the candidates it backed in Shiga, Okinawa and Saga prefectures defeated. This time, the LDP swept all 10 gubernatorial races by backing the incumbents in all of the contests.

On their stumping tours, LDP executives appealed for voter support by repeatedly noting the fruits of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "Abenomics" economic policy package, such as expanded employment opportunities and wage increases.

In prefectural assembly elections held in 41 prefectures, including Hokkaido, the LDP was also successful, obtaining more than half of all seats up for grabs. The LDP's victories apparently were mainly the result of the party fielding candidates aggressively.

Having been victorious in the first wave of the nationwide local elections, Abe's power base has been further consolidated. It is now of great importance for the administration to accelerate efforts to address such key tasks as resuscitating the economy, vitalizing regional economies outside Tokyo and introducing legislation to enhance the nation's legal framework for security.

The election results, on the other hand, have shown very clearly the waning strength of the Democratic Party of Japan. The number of candidates who ran for the prefectural assembly elections on the DPJ ticket was 40 per cent fewer than in previous contests, accounting for less than 30 per cent of the corresponding figure for the LDP. Finding itself unable to field a sufficient number of first-time candidates, the DPJ fought "defensive" elections by placing priority on securing victories by party-backed incumbents. This resulted in the number of DPJ seats falling far below the number the party won in the previous elections.

Uncontested seats surging

The DPJ's new leadership - Katsuya Okada became party head in January - falls far short of demonstrating its presence. Without working out an effective strategy to rebuild the party and turn around local organisations, the largest opposition party is bound to remain unable to carve out a future for itself.

The prefectural and city assembly elections of Osaka were regarded as a prelude to a referendum scheduled for May 17 with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's envisioned transformation of Osaka into a megapolis with the same administrative structure and status as Tokyo. Osaka Ishin no Kai, the regional party led by Hashimoto that has been playing the role of the driving force behind the Osaka vision, was successful in maintaining its position as the largest party both in the Osaka prefectural and city assemblies.

In the election of the 86-seat city assembly, Ishin secured 33 seats, the same number the party obtained in the previous contest, which Ishin set as the bottom line in the election this time. In the prefectural assembly race, however, Ishin came up short of securing a majority of the seats. As a result, it has become unclear whether the legislation of ordinances and related requirements to realise Hashimoto's Osaka vision will proceed without a hitch.

What is profoundly serious in regional politics is the fact that the number of candidates winning uncontested seats has increased by a wide margin. In prefectural assembly elections, about one-third of seats in all constituencies were uncontested, with the number of candidates running unopposed standing at more than 20 per cent of all those elected, a record high.

In the prefectural assembly election in Kagawa, in particular, those elected to uncontested seats accounted for more than 60 per cent of all seats, including the constituency of Takamatsu, the prefectural capital, where its seats were unopposed for the first time. The numbers of uncontested seats were more than 40 per cent of all seats in two other prefectures, Yamagata and Miyazaki.

The dearth of human resources aspiring to undertake the challenges of stemming declining populations and vitalizing regional economies indicates the seriousness of the structural crises facing all regions, other than major cities. The failure to provide a contest in local elections deprives voters of an opportunity of hearing candidates describe their policies, a situation that could aggravate further voters' apathy in regional elections.

All political parties, for that matter, should be made well aware of their responsibility to earnestly tackle the tasks of finding and fostering promising human resources.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 13, 2015)