Use This Opportunity to Discuss Local Revitalization / Devise Ways to Secure Prospective Candidates

With rural populations continuing to decline, what can be done to maintain government services, including education and medical care, and promote industry? Political parties and candidates must discuss measures for such purposes.

Campaigning for gubernatorial elections in nine prefectures, including Hokkaido, Osaka and Nara, has officially started, kicking off quadrennial unified local elections.

Campaigns for other elections, including those for the heads of six government ordinance-designated cities and 41 prefectural assemblies, will begin in succession from now. Voting and ballot counting for these elections, including the gubernatorial ones, will be held on April 9. And on April 23, voting and ballot counting will take place for elections for mayors and assembly members of cities other than government ordinance-designated cities, and heads of towns and villages, as well as for by-elections to fill vacant seats in the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.

Conservatives split in 2 prefectures

The unified local elections will serve as a benchmark to gauge each party’s strength. The election results will also have an impact on the management of the administration led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the timing of the dissolution of the lower house.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party will field more than 1,300 candidates in the 41 prefectural assembly elections for a total of 2,260 seats, aiming to maintain its overall majority of the seats available. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is expected to field only around 250 candidates. Whether it can strengthen its support base in rural areas will be put to the test.

Attention has also been focused on the moves of new conservative forces that made great strides in last year’s upper house election.

Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) is aiming to increase the number of its local assembly members from 450 to more than 600, and party leader Nobuyuki Baba has publicly stated that he will resign if this goal is not achieved. The Sanseito party intends to field about 250 candidates.

It is said that both Ishin and Sanseito have gained support from conservative voters who are dissatisfied with the existing political situation. The test is whether they will be able to gain ground nationwide in the unified local elections.

In the gubernatorial elections in nine prefectures, the LDP was unable to agree on a single candidate for Nara and Tokushima prefectures, which will result in a split in conservative votes.

In Nara Prefecture, the LDP prefectural chapter has recommended a newcomer, a former bureaucrat at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, while some prefectural assembly members are backing the incumbent, who is seeking a fifth term in office. Other candidates include a former mayor of Ikoma who is endorsed by Ishin.

In Tokushima Prefecture, the LDP prefectural chapter is supporting the incumbent who is seeking a sixth term in office, but two former LDP lawmakers who resigned from the Diet earlier this year are among the other candidates.

The conservative camp failed to coordinate the wishes of local party members and agree on a single candidate in the two prefectures due partly to the LDP leadership’s lack of abilities. If both LDP-affiliated candidates are defeated in the Nara gubernatorial election, the unifying power of the LDP leadership could be weakened.

In Osaka, there will be elections for both the prefectural governor and city mayor. The incumbents are being challenged by “non-Ishin” candidates.

The gubernatorial elections in Hokkaido and Oita Prefecture are essentially contests between candidates supported by ruling and opposition camps. In the gubernatorial elections in the four prefectures of Kanagawa, Fukui, Tottori and Shimane, ruling and some opposition parties are backing the same candidates.

Even though the color of political parties is less reflected in the campaigns of local elections than those of national elections, the easy alignment of candidates by the ruling and opposition parties is likely to narrow the choices available to voters. It must be said that the CDPJ bears a heavy responsibility for failing to field its own candidates.

Many local governments are losing vitality as their populations shrink.

Childcare support

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun questionnaire survey of local government leaders nationwide in February, 90% said population decline is “serious,” and more than 60% cited childcare support and measures to combat population decline as points of contention in the unified local elections.

If the flow of population out of regional areas continues, it will be difficult to maintain functions such as the provision of medical and nursing care services and garbage collection. It is important to create jobs that young people find attractive and places for them to learn.

Many local governments have begun taking measures to address the declining birth rate ahead of the central government. For example, Hirakawa, Aomori Prefecture, fully subsidizes out-of-pocket expenses for fertility treatment. Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, intends to cover personnel costs to secure obstetricians for its hospitals.

It will not be easy for local governments with weak financial foundations to implement their own measures. It is vital to consider policy priorities and secure financial resources. Hopefully, candidates will compete with each other on specific measures throughout the election campaigns.

There is a serious shortage of candidates seeking to become assembly members, who are responsible for local autonomy.

In the unified local elections four years ago, roughly a quarter of prefectural, town and village assembly members secured seats in uncontested elections. In eight town and village assembly polls, the number of candidates fell short of the number of seats up for election.

The decrease in the number of people who want to play a role in local politics could lead to a decline in the quality of assembly members. Local governments and assemblies need to create an environment that makes it easier for young people and women to run for elections. Holding assembly meetings at night and on weekends could be an idea.

Decline in turnout

Increasing assembly member salaries may also be an effective step. The average monthly salary for city assembly members is ¥410,000, and ¥220,000 for town and village assembly members. The majority of town and village assembly members have other jobs on top of their work in local politics. However, it will be difficult to increase the number of prospective assembly members at that salary level.

As in the case of national elections, the decline in voter turnout in the unified local elections has seemed unstoppable. Four years ago, the average voter turnout for assembly elections in cities, wards, towns and villages was 45.16%, and that of prefectural assembly elections was 44.02%, both record lows.

Unified local elections are an important opportunity for people to look after their daily lives. It is hoped that people will actively cast votes with an eye toward the future of their local communities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 24, 2023)