Conservative forces including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) showed outstanding performances in the first round of nationwide local elections on April 7.
LDP-backed candidates were defeated in three of 11 gubernatorial elections, including in Osaka Prefecture. However, the LDP made a strong showing in 41 prefectural assembly elections. The LDP won a combined 1,158 seats, over half of the 2,277 seats up for grabs in these prefectures. This follows the LDP’s victory in the previous 2015 elections in which the party secured more than half of the seats up for grabs for the first time in 24 years. LDP candidates garnered 40 percent of votes in these prefectural assembly elections, almost equal to 39 percent in the previous elections.
In the Osaka Prefectural Assembly race, Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Restoration Association), a regional political party which is advocating a plan to restructure the city of Osaka into a metropolis like Tokyo, increased its strength from 40 seats to 51 while the LDP suffered a crushing defeat, securing only 15. However, Osaka Ishin’s basic policies are similar to those of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, including the latter’s goal of revising the postwar Constitution, although the regional party and the LDP are in conflict over the metro Osaka plan.
The LDP failed to present proposals on effective measures to revitalize slumping local economies and put the brakes on the population decline in regional areas. Nevertheless, the LDP made a strong showing in the elections aided apparently by the weakness of opposition parties.
The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the main opposition in the National Diet, won only 118 seats in the 41 prefectural assemblies, about 10 percent of seats captured by the LDP. If the 83 seats won by the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), another key opposition party, are included, the number comes to only 201, far below the 264 seats garnered by their predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in the 2015 races.
The DPJ successfully took over the reins of government as a result of the 2009 general election by taking advantage of public criticism of the LDP’s longstanding rule, but it had been pointed out that the DPJ’s support base in regional areas was fragile. Its successors, the CDP and the DPFP, fielded only 290 candidates in prefectural assembly elections this time, well below the 1,302 who ran on the LDP’s ticket, showing that these key opposition parties have failed to overcome the fragility of their regional support base.
It is clear that opposition parties cannot win support in local elections simply by opposing policies being pursued and implemented by the government of Prime Minister Abe. A candidate backed jointly by key opposition parties suffered a humiliating defeat in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, where the DPJ had a firm support base.
To garner support from the public, opposition parties need to draw up policies and accumulate human resources to counter conservative parties rather than simply grilling the LDP over its scandals.
Nationwide local elections are viewed as a prelude to the next House of Councillors election this coming summer. The number of seats won by local assembly members, whose activities are based on the local communities they represent, can be used as an index to predict the outcome of Diet elections.
While concerns have been raised within the LDP over a split in conservative forces in local elections, the outcome of the first round of the local elections highlights opposition parties’ lack of public support. It appears that opposition parties prioritize power struggles within their camp rather than joining hands in confronting the LDP. It must be kept in mind that tense relations between ruling and opposition parties are indispensable for sound democracy.