In the 41 prefectural assembly elections to be held on April 7 as part of this spring’s unified local elections, a record number of assembly members will be elected without opposition.
In 371 electoral districts, nearly 40 percent of the total, 612, or some 27 percent, of all the prefectural assembly seats up for grabs will go uncontested.
The numbers of both uncontested districts and seats are all-time highs, breaking the records set in the previous unified local elections four years ago.
In the five prefectures of Gifu, Kagawa, Hiroshima, Kumamoto and Aichi, more than 40 percent of the assembly seats have been nailed down before the vote.
Local assemblies serve as watchdogs of the local governments and have the power to make the final decisions on issues concerning budgets and public projects.
Local assemblies are often described as one of the two “wheels” of local autonomy, with the other being the heads of local governments. Their powers derive from the will of the people as expressed in the form of votes they cast in elections.
The steady increase in the number of uncontested local assembly seats is threatening to weaken the connection between the assemblies and the voting public.
The current situation will keep eroding the foundation of democracy, a system in which voters give power to their representatives through elections. Something must be done to reverse the trend.
One factor behind the increase in uncontested prefectural assembly elections is the increase in the numbers of single-seat and two-seat districts, which now account for 70 percent of the total. Large political parties enjoy a clear advantage in these districts.
The ratio of single-seat districts in prefectural assembly elections has risen over the years due to, among other factors, cuts in assembly seats stemming from depopulation. The current figure of 40 percent compares with less than 20 percent seven decades ago.
This has made it even more difficult for newcomers to successfully challenge well-entrenched incumbents.
Another major factor behind the trend is enfeebled opposition.
The opposition parties, which have opted to support candidates jointly with other parties in a growing number of gubernatorial elections, have also reduced the numbers of their own local assembly candidates.
This has resulted in more than 50 uncontested prefectural assembly electoral districts with three or more seats, including Fukuoka’s Higashi Ward, which has five seats, and Hiroshima’s Nishi Ward, which has four.
Twelve years ago, the Democratic Party of Japan, which was considered a serious challenger to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, fielded 476 candidates in prefectural assembly elections. This time around, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People, two relatively new opposition parties with many former Democratic Party members, are running less than 300 candidates between them.
Also contributing to the growing number of uncontested prefectural assembly seats is waning public interest in elections, as symbolized by sagging voter turnouts.
Prefectural assembly members are not as close to voters as their municipal assembly counterparts. They have a lower profile than Diet members.
Many voters may not really understand the kinds of tasks prefectural assembly members carry out.
To change the status quo, a reform of the electoral system itself is probably necessary.
For example, single-seat and two-seat districts should be combined as much as possible for higher administrative efficiency. Meanwhile, large electoral districts with more than 10 seats in prefectural capitals should be divided into smaller blocs.
Another viewpoint for electoral reform has been offered by a group of experts.
Two years ago, a study group comprised of academic researchers and other experts that was set up by the internal affairs ministry to discuss issues concerning local assemblies and their members proposed to introduce a proportional representation system into prefectural assembly elections.
The proposal was a response to such key issues as the difficulty of rezoning and the increasing dominance of political parties, including local groups, in local assemblies.
The introduction of a proportional representation system would encourage political parties to focus more on policies and promote a greater diversity of candidates, such having more women contest seats. This is an idea that merits serious consideration.
If the current system is maintained, there will be little chance for a change for the better.