Encourage wider range of residents to participate in politics

As fewer people are aspiring to become local assembly members, there is concern that the quality of local assemblies will deteriorate. It is vital to take various steps to ensure enough people aspire to become local assembly members.

A subcommittee of the government’s Local Government System Research Council has drawn up a draft report on local assembly reform. It recommended that each local assembly take the initiative to promote the participation of women and young people, and that the public and private sectors also cooperate for that purpose. The council will finalize the report soon.

The shortage of people who want to be local assembly members is serious. In the unified local elections in 2019, 27% of prefectural assembly members and 23% of town and village assembly members won their seats without a vote, both record highs. The number of candidates fell below the number of assembly seats in a total of eight town and village assembly elections.

One village even considered holding a general village meeting, in place of a village assembly session, in which residents can deliberate directly on budget proposals and other matters, on the grounds that the assembly was not viable. The number of municipalities in a similar situation is expected to increase if the population continues to decline and depopulation in rural areas increases.

If the function of assemblies to deal with people’s everyday challenges deteriorates, regional areas will only continue to decline.

The draft report called on the central government to make it easier for company employees to run in local elections by encouraging companies to establish a leave system for employees to focus on their campaigns, and to allow them to have side jobs as assembly members.

However, many small and midsize firms are suffering from labor shortages. It is hoped that companies will cooperate as much as possible depending on their actual situation.

The composition of local assembly members is markedly unbalanced. The percentage of women remains in the 10% range in all assemblies across prefectures, cities, wards, towns and villages. The proportion of members aged 60 or older reached 57% in city and ward assemblies, and 77% in town and village assemblies.

In order to secure a diverse group, it is essential for each assembly to be inventive. An effective step would be holding assembly meetings at night or on holidays. It is also necessary to enhance opportunities for policy discussions with residents and get them interested in the assembly.

The draft report urged smaller assemblies to review the level of remuneration for assembly members. The average monthly salary for prefectural assembly members is ¥810,000, but for city assembly members it is ¥410,000 and for town and village assembly members it is only ¥220,000.

Remuneration for members of smaller assemblies is paid on the assumption that they have a second job, and in fact nearly 80% of town and village assembly members do have jobs in agriculture, forestry and other areas. At the current level, it is difficult to increase the number of full-time assembly members. It would be advisable to consider raising the salaries of assembly members, while seeking the understanding of residents.

There has been no end to problems in local assemblies, such as illegal receipts of expenses for political activities and harassment. Such scandals have contributed to people avoiding their local assemblies. It is important for each assembly member to straighten up and make efforts to build trust.

Local assembly members, who come into contact with residents on a daily basis, are also important supporters of national political parties. Both the ruling and opposition parties must not leave these problems unattended.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 7, 2022)