Vox urusai: Electioneers take to the stumps
Local elections are just around the corner and the expert opinion is: get strong earplugs.
If NHK’s weather forecasters are correct, this year’s cherry blossom viewing season will be far noisier than usual. In late March and early April, as you, your friends, colleagues, and total strangers are drinking sake in a park underneath the blossoms and singing your favorite (?) J-pop, enka, or Beatles song on a portable karaoke machine, you’ll likely discover you’re suddenly being drowned out by a noise that grates on the nerves far worse than a song by SMAP or the Fab Four. For as the blossoms fall, candidates in your locality will be out and about, waving white-gloved hands as assistants shout their names through megaphones at a decibel level approaching that of a Motorhead concert.
Japanese voters head to the polls in April to cast their ballots for governors, mayors, prefectural and town assemblies. On April 10th, they’ll elect governors in 13 prefectures and mayors in five major cities. On April 24th, they’ll choose the heads of 233 towns and villages, and council members in 730 localities. That’s a lot of campaign sound trucks on street corners, and April is predicted to be just the beginning. If the ruling Democratic Party of Japan loses big, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose support rate was under 20 percent in late February, will most likely be forced dissolve the Diet and call a Lower House election, probably by mid or late summer. Buy yourself a pair of extra-strength, long-lasting earplugs. It’s going to be a very noisy 2011.
One of the major issues that will surely be the subject of much of the shouting has local, national, and international implications. The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership agreement would open Japan’s markets to products from The United States, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, and Chile. Under the TPP, member nations would remove their tariffs on all products, without exception, within a decade.
At last year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, pro-TPP countries announced they wanted to conclude an agreement by the end of this year. Kan, the Tokyo headquarters of the DPJ, the major opposition Liberal Democratic Party, Japan’s major business organi-zations, and large numbers of Japanese in the major cities all support joining the TPP. But they have a problem. In the rest of Japan, attitudes towards the TPP range from cautious to hostile. This is especially true among the nation’s rice farmers, who have been organizing protests against the TPP since last autumn. If Japan joins, the tariff barrier on imported rice will go from 777 percent to zero. This could send not only many farmers but also related farm-equipment businesses and services into bankruptcy.
Then there is the food self-sufficiency issue. Corporations strongly backing a TPP, less for its advertised positive effect on the Japanese economy and more because it will make it easier for them to shift industrial production outside of a Japan that faces raising corporate taxes in coming years to support ever-growing numbers of elderly and retired, argue those worried about a TPP reducing Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate further (it’s around 40 percent now), should calculate the rate based not upon the volume of food imported but on a calorie basis. But politicians and bureaucrats opposed to the TPP are more concerned
Japan could be held hostage to foreign food suppliers.
Those pork barrel projects are, indirectly, another issue of voter concern. Traditionally, local politicians have been elected based on their ability to bring home the bacon — and the roads, bridges, dams, airports, train stations, and community centers — from Tokyo. The various arguments by pro-TPP politicians, academics, corporate leaders, media, and urban dwellers have had no discernable effect on rural voters as a whole, and certainly not on the politically powerful agricultural co-ops, which are leading the charge against a TPP agreement. April’s elections will, therefore, determine just how powerful the once-dominant farm lobby remains. To be sure, many rural voters dislike the co-ops high prices and privileged political position as much as their city cousins. But whether they’ll vote for candidates who might agree to a TPP agreement (in exchange, no doubt, for yet more central government money for pork barrel projects) remains to be seen.
It mattered little if one’s local assemblymen and women, mayor, and governor all had two-digit IQs or exhibited criminal tendencies. If their old school chums were now at the section chief level in the Finance, Construction, or Transportation ministries, and if they were funded by local chamber of commerce types or the above-mentioned agricultural co-ops, it was hard not to get elected. While not a closed shop as was the case even a decade ago, local elections are still won or lost on how much money the candidate has brought in, if they’re standing for re-election, or is likely to bring in, if they’re running for the first time. That includes April’s election, especially at a time of central government cuts for pet projects.
Another key will be how ‘populists’ fare. These are candidates who love to bash the Tokyo bureaucracy, the ruling and main opposition parties, and who presentthem- selves as outside defenders of ‘the people’. In Kansai, Osaka Pref. Gov. Toru Hashimoto, a former TV talking head, enjoys support ratings of around 70 percent for his populist approach. Never mind his proposals, from abolishing Itami airport to merging Osaka city with Osaka prefecture to making massive cuts in social welfare services to balancing a prefectural budget driven to bankruptcy by white elephant projects in the 1990s, are based, sometimes verbatim, on proposals Kansai’s corporate leaders have long pushed. Never mind Hashimoto’s original political backers were senior LDP politicians who previously worked with those same corporate leaders to enact those same failed projects. His popularity is due to a perception that he’s a brilliant politician with a fiery, independent streak.
The governor has managed to translate this image into a small but growing grassroots movement. His ‘One Osaka’ is a combination political party, pep rally, and media strategy, and other local politicians are reaching out to Hashimoto for support. How he uses his influence is being watched closely. Should his party, which is composed of younger, often socially conservative and generally inward-looking former LDP politicians, take control of Osaka city hall in particular, Hashimoto says he’ll attempt to unseat DPJ-backed Osaka mayor Kunio Hiramatsu in the mayoral election later this year. Hashimoto’s followers already control the prefectural assembly by a slight majority.
The governor, his party, and his corporate sponsors also have their eyes on neighboring Nara Prefecture, where one of the 13 gubernatorial elections takes place. Current governor Shogo Arai, a former Transport Ministry official and parliamentarian who attended graduate school in the US, is an old-fashioned local politician who is nevertheless somewhat of a progressive and surprisingly outward-looking. But Arai incurred the wrath of Hashimoto and Osaka-based Kansai business leaders for refusing to join the Kansai Unity project (see following Kansai Unity story), criticizing the project as vague and unlikely to benefit Nara prefecture.
Although Arai has suggested that if Nara’s concerns about the project were to be addressed, he would reconsider, his refusal to join was the subject of much complaint at the recent Kansai Economic Seminar in Kyoto. This annual retreat, where steel, utility, and electronic corporate titans all think deep thoughts, plot political strategy, and discuss how to socially re-engineer the region to their advantage, saw speaker after speaker lament the fact that Nara had declined the invitation to their little garden party.Hashimoto, meanwhile, has indicated participation is for the people of Nara to decide. But he might be willing to back a challenger to Arai who supports joining the project.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Hashimoto has reached across prefectural borders. February’s Nagoya mayoral and Aichi gubernatorial races were won by candidates running populist campaigns similar to Hashimoto’s. The Osaka governor and over 50 supporters even traveled to Nagoya to stump on their behalf. Hashimoto is already good friends with popular Miyazaki Pref. Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, and the list of local politicians outside Osaka who want
to form an alliance with him grows daily. At the national level, Hashimoto and his friends have flirted with tie-ups with the conservative Your Party, and even the LDP. But nothing has come of these efforts.
Regardless of who wins what in April, though, it’s clear the biggest loser will be the DPJ, barring a major scandal on the part of the opposition or some unexpected development that lifts Kan’s approval ratings. The DPJ is in deep trouble. TPP negotiations are opposed by rural voters whose votes they desperately need, while the rise of populist politicians like Hashimoto and a renewed sense of mission on the part of the LDP has shaken the party’s local chapters.
The LDP, however, has its own problems. While it controls the Upper House, the party remains ideologically split between two basic factions. The first is the cosmopolitan LDP — the city-based, corporate types who are slightly xenophobic and have hawkish foreign policy views, even as they dine in Michelin three-star restaurants and fourstar hotels and chat, in English or Asian languages, with their foreign friends. The second faction is the traditional rural LDP, which is less convinced of free trade arguments and less interested in bashing North Korea or worrying about China than in central government support for jobs, public works, and local investment.
The two factions have always existed in an often uneasy alliance. But April’s elections are about local concerns. A strong showing by LDP or LDP-backed candidates would not necessarily translate into immediate carte blanche agreement for the policies of LDP politicians at the national level. But a strong showing by opposition candidates could be the death knell of the DPJ. Most pundits predict a Lower House election sometime within the next few months, regardless. If so, it’s possible the LDP, either by itself or in alliance with smaller parties like Your Party, which consists of many former LDP politicians and did quite well in Upper House elections last summer, could return to power.
Whatever happens, April’s elections mean the noise emanating from candidates stumping for votes and political pundits trying to figure out what it all means is likely to continue. Not until Golden Week, but, more likely, until the first winds of autumn start blowing.
Eric Johnston is a deputy editor with The Japan Times in Osaka. The opinions expressed above are his own, and not necessarily those of The Japan Times.