The outcomes of the first round of unified local elections have underscored, first and foremost, the weakness of the opposition.
It was clearly attested by the poor showings of opposition parties in the flurry of local polls held nationwide on April 7 including the 11 gubernatorial and 41 prefectural assembly elections.
In the race for the office of Hokkaido governor, the only all-out, head-on battle between the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the opposition camp, the ruling party-backed rookie candidate Naomichi Suzuki defeated Tomohiro Ishikawa, who was backed by most opposition parties, by a large margin.
The opposition blocs were late in selecting their unified candidate. While Ishikawa won around 80 percent of the votes of supporters of the opposition parties, a vast majority of independent voters flocked to Suzuki, according to Asahi Shimbun exit polls.
The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) expanded its strength in prefectural assemblies by picking up 118 seats nationwide, including 42 won by rookies. But the total of seats secured by the CDP and the Democratic Party for the People, two splinter groups of the former Democratic Party of Japan, came to 201, more than 60 less than the seats the DPJ took in the previous unified elections four years ago.
The opposition parties clearly need to use the lessons from their dismal performances to map out a better strategy for the summer Upper House poll.
Their efforts to enhance their electoral cooperation through coordinated selections of candidates have been hobbled by their rivalries and leadership struggles.
They will have little chance of winning against the powerful ruling camp unless they quickly decide to field unified candidates in single-seat constituencies and take steps to avoid hurting each other in multiple-seat districts.
While the opposition camp was struggling to regain strength, the LDP failed to reach a consensus on its candidates for the gubernatorial elections in Fukui, Shimane, Tokushima and Fukuoka prefectures. Two LDP-affiliated candidates ran in these four races.
In Shimane and Fukuoka, the candidates backed by the party headquarters lost. In these two prefectures, the ruling party faced a backlash against its moves to “impose” its choices that were not based on broad local consensus.
In Osaka Prefecture, four elections were held on the day to choose the governor, the prefectural assembly, the Osaka mayor and the Osaka municipal assembly, attracting the most public attention. Local party Osaka Ishin no Kai emerged as the big winner, retaining its governorship and mayorship while obtaining a majority in the prefectural assembly.
The party’s victory will give a powerful boost to its radical initiative to merge the two local governments to form a metropolitan government, like Tokyo. But it should follow careful and fair procedures as it seeks a local consensus on the proposal.
A record 237 women won seats in 41 prefectural assemblies in the first unified local elections since a law was enacted last spring urging political parties to try as much as possible to field equal numbers of male and female candidates in polls. The number of women elected to prefectural assemblies increased by 30 from four years ago.
But the overall picture is a far cry from gender equality in politics, with women accounting for only 10 percent of all prefectural assembly members.
By party, the LDP is among the worst underachievers in this respect, with women constituting a puny 3.5 percent of its newly elected prefectural assembly members, far smaller ratios than the Japanese Communist Party’s 51.5 percent and the CDP’s 24.6 percent.
Changing this situation requires greater efforts by political parties to discover more potential candidates among women and create an environment that promotes diversity including women’s representation in local assemblies.
Voter turnouts in the local elections were, by and large, low. While some high-profile races, including those that featured two LDP-affiliated candidates running against one another, attracted larger number of voters than in the previous unified local elections, the average voter turnout for prefectural assembly polls hit a record postwar low of 44.08 percent.
Of the 41 prefectural assembly elections, 33, including those in Saitama, Chiba and Aichi prefectures, recorded the lowest turnout rates in the postwar period.
Voters’ keen interest is vital for political and administrative discipline on both the state and local levels.
Vice land minister Ichiro Tsukada was recently forced to resign over his much-criticized remarks about the shady “sontaku” practice concerning a local public works project because of concerns about the political fallout on the ruling party’s performances in the elections.
Healthy tension in politics can only be created by the ballots cast by voters who keep a close watch on the behavior of politicians.