(Tokyo Shimbun: January 8, 2015 – p. 24-25)
By Yuji Shinogase
In the gubernatorial election for Saga Prefecture, which is known as a “conservative kingdom,” there is a split occurring between national and prefectural conservatives. Local conservatives are not supporting a candidate backed by the ruling LDP and are instead endorsing a rival candidate backed by municipal leaders. The agricultural cooperative is also taking a defiant attitude. Saga Prefecture has two national level issues – the restart of the Kyushu Electric company’s Genkai nuclear power plant and the deployment of the new Osprey transport aircraft at Saga Airport. The election will be held on January 11. Some people have been saying that “whoever wins, there will be hard feelings.”
“He combined a library with Starbucks. He did something that most people could never even imagine. I ask you to make such a person the leader of Saga Prefecture,” emphasized Akihiro Ohta, member of the Komeito Party, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister, standing on an LDP’s election campaign van parked in front of JR Saga station, calling for support for Keisuke Hiwatashi (45), former mayor of Takeo City, who is backed by both the LDP and the Komeito Party.
Since the official announcement of the gubernatorial election on Dec 25 last year, both the LDP and the Komeito Party have been making all-out efforts in the campaign. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga visited the prefecture at the end of last year, followed by other party leaders one after another. LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki visited Jan 5, and LDP Election Strategy Committee Chairperson Toshimitsu Motegi and LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Tomomi Inada will travel to the prefecture on Jan 8.
The ruling LDP lost in the Okinawa gubernatorial election held in November of last year in which the central and local conservatives were also divided. Therefore, the ruling LDP “cannot afford to lose this election,” said a LDP Saga Prefectural Chapter leader. If the LDP loses this election as well, the government’s grip on power is bound to weaken.
The rival candidate is Yoshinori Yamaguchi (49), a former bureaucrat of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. A large number of local government heads, members of local councils, and groups associated with the LDP are supporting the candidate. The center of such support is “the prefectural agricultural policy council,” the political arm of the Saga chapter (with about 55,000 members) of Japan Agricultural Cooperative (JA) group.
After former Saga Governor Yasushi Furukawa stepped down to run in the Lower House election, the official announcement of the ongoing gubernatorial election was made last year and the voting day was set for this year, which is quite unusual. Besides the aforementioned two candidates, Yoshitaka Isagai (44), a farmer, and Yukihiro Toritani (59), a professor at the Kyushu University graduate school, are running in the election.
Hiwatashi was the first to make a move. On Nov 27, before the Lower House was dissolved, he went to Tokyo to inform CCS Suga of his intention to run in the gubernatorial election.
During his tenure as Takeo City mayor, Hiwatashi outsourced library operation to the private sector, privatized the city hospital, and promoted cooperation between public elementary schools and private cram schools. Since he was known as a “reformer,” the Abe administration naturally regards him as the ideal candidate since it endeavors to break through “bedrock regulations.”
However, a local government head criticizes Hiwatashi as “self-righteous.” One JA member said, “He gave me the cold shoulder when I tried to consult with him.”
Local government heads and municipal council members in the prefecture had previously tried to field a different bureaucrat as candidate and made a formal recommendation to the LDP prefectural chapter. But the recommendation was rejected because the candidate was in charge of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Some local officials took the rejection as “ignoring local voices.” It was Yamaguchi who was then persuaded to run in the election. Yamaguchi’s parents are from Saga Prefecture.
As the election campaign progresses, hostility between the national and prefectural conservatives has intensified.
In a campaign speech, CCS Suga said, “Former Governor Furukawa recommended Hiwatashi as his successor.” The LDP began phoning voters on Jan 4 and playing a recorded message of PM Abe expressing his support for Hiwatashi.
On the other hand, Saga City Mayor Toshiyuki Hideshima and Taku City Mayor Toshihiko Yokoo attended a gathering for Yamaguchi held on the night of Jan. 6 in Taku City. Mayor Hideshima said, “I don’t understand why the LDP headquarters is meddling in the local election.”
A leading member of the Yamaguchi camp said about the LDP headquarters: “The disregard for how its actions may appear to the public is unacceptable. Now the gubernatorial election is a fight between the national and the local – it’s ‘Saga’s rebellion.'” One JA affiliated member said: “Some union presidents (of JA) say they will not support candidates who back Hiwatashi (in this gubernatorial election) in the upcoming unified local election in April and other national elections hereafter.”
The agricultural reform that the Abe administration advocates is one of the reasons behind “Saga’s rebellion.” The administration aims at strengthening domestic agriculture through such measures as abolishing the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives’ authority to provide guidance and conduct audits of regional agricultural cooperatives.
The total farmland area in Saga Prefecture is 53,700 hectares, 22% of the prefecture’s entire area. Yoshimi Nakano, the chairman of the Saga prefectural agricultural policy association, is also the chairman of the National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations, the central body of the JA groups. The Abe administration’s agricultural reform is not acceptable to the group.
On account of the opposition expressed by JA and LDP lawmakers affiliated with farm organizations, the LDP toned down its campaign pledges on agricultural reform during the last Lower House election. But the party announced this year that it will shorten the reform period from five years to three years. It will also submit a bill for revising the Agricultural Cooperative Law during the ordinary Diet session to convene this month.
All the more because the Abe administration is trying to boost momentum for agricultural reform, it cannot afford to lose the Saga gubernatorial election.
In a campaign speech at the end of last year, CCS Suga brought up agricultural reform. “The wholesale price of rice through an agricultural cooperative is about 10,000 yen per 60 kilogram, but some farmers directly find customers on their own and sell their rice for around 40,000 yen.”
Taro Kono, a Lower House LDP member, who came to the prefecture on Jan 6, said, “Whether to place priority on JA or the future of Saga prefecture’s citizens is being questioned. It is a question of whether to view a new idea as a problem or to think about the prefecture as a whole and try something new.”
The LDP is obviously trying to give the impression that it is a confrontation between “the old guard group” and “the reform group led by the administration and Hiwatashi.” Hiromi Nagaishi, chief of public affairs of the Saga prefectural central agricultural cooperative, said: “We also believe reform is necessary and are trying to come up with our own reform plan.”
What do local farmers think about the gubernatorial election? Osamu Shimada (70) who is a farmer near Saga Airport, said: “Local voices should be reflected in agricultural reform.”
Indeed, the election seems to be ignoring voters. The issue of restarting the Genkai nuclear power plant is a good example. The Osprey is another issue that will affect the prefectural citizens’ livelihood but has not become a major issue in this election.
The Defense Ministry made a request to Saga Prefecture last July to deploy the SDF’s Ospreys at Saga Airport and transfer helicopters there. Immediately before resigning, former governor Furukawa said, “The deployment and transfer will not affect civilian flights at the airport.” What he said could be taken as his acceptance of the deployment and the transfer. However, Saga City Mayor Hideshima said, “My understanding is that the statement was not meant to be an approval of the plan.”
The remarks made by Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in a press conference on taking office at the end of last year gave the impression that he took Furukawa’s comment as the prefecture’s acceptance of the plan. The ministry will soon decide on the budget for the deployment and transfer. However, the issue should be debated in the ongoing gubernatorial election.
Hiwatashi takes the position that the deployment and transfer is generally acceptable with the prefectural citizens’ understanding. Yamaguchi has not made his position clear yet, saying, “I will listen to the prefectural citizens’ opinions.”
Local fishermen are uneasy about the Osprey deployment plan. They are afraid that the deployment will affect seaweed cultivation in the prefecture. A leading member of the fishermen’s cooperative of the Ariake Sea said “The land reclamation and aircraft hovering may affect seaweed cultivation in the Ariake Sea. If an aircraft were to crash into the sea, it could cause serious damage.”
Kenichiro Uchida (63) who has been involved in seaweed cultivation for the past 30 years, said: “They probably intend to push forward with the plan regardless of the result of the gubernatorial election just like they did (with the U.S. military air station) in Okinawa.”