The Economist. London: Jan 15, 2005.Vol.374, Iss. 8409; pp. 54-55
This year's local elections will show how much Japan is really changing
IF ALL politics is local, then 2005 could be a big year politically for Japan. Throughout the year, 136 elections will be held in prefectures and big cities, along with more than 400 local ones in smaller towns. Local politicians have already been gaining prominence in recent years, with independent-minded governors such as Masayasu Kitagawa in Mie, Yasuo Tanaka in Nagano and Shintaro Ishihara in Tokyo grabbing headlines and upstaging national politicians and officials. If these trends continue in 2005, that will be a good indicator of the prospects for reform.
Naturally, there are some big national issues to watch this year. Lawmakers and bureaucrats will do battle over tax increases, rising social-security costs and the post-office privatisation scheme of Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister. All eyes will also be on the national economy, which has been slowing after an impressive rebound over the past couple of years. And with Mr Koizumi due to reach his term limit in 2006, the jockeying to succeed him will begin this year. Yet the growing competitiveness of local politics, and the increasing tendency of local leaders to start national debates, could give this year's local elections a big role in the battle to form Japan's next government.
For starters, they should allow the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, to hone its message ahead of the next general elections, due by 2007. The DPJ has gained ground over the past couple of years, ushering in real two-party competition for the first time in decades and moving within striking distance of wresting power away from the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). As a result, the DPJ has started to abandon the traditional opposition practice of backing the same candidates as the ruling party in local contests. When the LDP was the only game in town, the best opposition parties could hope for at the local level was a share of the spoils. Now, the DPJ sees those local polls as battles in a bigger war.
The DPJ lacks strong candidates in rural areas, however, especially in conservative LDP strongholds in the south and west. One strategy that might help, says Eisuke Sakakibara--a prominent former official and now a leading Koizumi detractor--is to exploit schisms in the LDP when backing candidates, even those who become independents rather than join the DPJ fold. In Miyakonojo, a city in the southern prefecture of Miyazaki, the 35-year-old son of a senior LDP politician ran as an independent recently and won after his father fell out with the ruling party. The DPJ, says Mr Sakakibara, can find good rural candidates by exploiting such rifts.
If it can turn in more good showings this year, both in the local polls and in a handful of by-elections for seats in parliament, the DPJ might even convince the LDP's coalition partner, New Komeito, that the LDP's days are numbered. New Komeito already holds the balance of power in Japan's upper house, and if its supporters stop backing LDP candidates in the cities, the LDP could quickly lose control of the lower one. The local route has many more stops than the express, but it could be taking Japan in an interesting direction.