The unified local elections held nationwide in April underscored perennially low voter turnout rates and a growing number of local assembly members elected without opposition.
Raising voter turnout and reducing the number of seats that go uncontested requires hard work and ingenuity on the part of local governments. But there are limits to what local administrations can do in tackling these deep-seated problems.
It is probably time to consider radical reforms, such as simultaneously holding all elections for local government chiefs and assembly members. This step would raise the ratio of local elections conducted as part of “unified” local polls back to 100 percent from 27 percent this year.
The average voting rate for the 11 gubernatorial elections in the first round of the polls was 47.72 percent, up slightly from the previous time. But the average voter turnouts for 41 prefectural assembly elections as well as for the mayoral and municipal assembly polls held as the second round were all below 50 percent, with many of them registering record lows.
The figures have been trending downward since peaking in the 1950s.
The principal factor behind this trend is the declining power of local autonomy.
If local political leaders make policy proposals that are better tailored to the needs of the local communities than those imposed by the central government and seek a public mandate to carry them through in elections, voters will show a stronger interest in the local races.
In Osaka Prefecture, higher ratios of eligible voters turned out than in many other prefectures for the four local elections held on April 7.
There is no denying that local party Osaka Ishin no Kai’s radical initiative to merge the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments to form a Tokyo-style metropolitan government attracted voters’ attention, although the gimmick to win a powerful public mandate to push through the proposal is hard to support.
Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, who both belong to the party, resigned at the same time in early March to run for each other’s positions in April.
This move was aimed at avoiding having to seek re-election in autumn when their original terms expire while expanding their party’s strength in the prefectural and municipal assemblies by timing the gubernatorial and mayoral polls with the local assembly elections.
Yoshihiro Katayama, a professor at Waseda University’s graduate school, has proposed to “reunify” the unified local elections that have actually become scattered over time. In addition to other measures to revitalize local autonomy, the former Tottori governor and internal affairs minister suggested holding all local elections in November once every four years.
Governors and mayors newly elected in April, when a new fiscal year begins, have to pursue their policy agendas with budgets formulated by their predecessors.
Even though a provisional initial budget is compiled for a fiscal year when the election for the local government chief is to be held, the new governor or mayor may nevertheless have to deal with a spending plan offering only a small amount of money available for new policy measures.
Looking back on his own experience of serving as a governor, Katayama says elections in November would allow local government heads to become involved in the process of formulating the budget for the next fiscal year from the beginning. This offers great benefits for local administration, he argues.
Reunifying the local elections would raise voters’ interest in these polls and provide a political incentive for parties to pour greater effort into developing better policies concerning local finances and decentralization of power.
If the gubernatorial and mayoral elections are held simultaneously once every four years, with deputy governors and mayors designated to take over and serve the rest of the terms of the resigning head, there would be no by-elections to choose local government chiefs.
By-elections where ill-prepared candidates battle for local government leadership posts tend to turn into simple popularity contests with important policy issues on the back burner.
Fixing the dates for elections would help improve the quality of local polls by allowing candidates to propose carefully designed policy agendas to seek public support. This approach would also prevent incumbents from scheduling elections to their advantage by using unfair schemes like those adopted in Osaka.
Katayama has proposed that all local government leadership elections be moved to November gradually over a quarter-century or so by extending the terms of governors and mayors little by little.
While this idea would require a revision to the law, it would be possible to concentrate the polls in November in a shorter time frame if a broad public consensus is achieved.
This bold proposal merits serious consideration because it at least offers a viable alternative to corrosive inaction.