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Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

EDITORIAL

Local bellwether elections

The results of coming local elections in Osaka and Aichi prefectures could have a great impact on the shape of Japan's local government. The people concerned need to carefully watch and consider the moves of two men — Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura.

Mr. Hashimoto has the idea of dissolving the Osaka city and integrating the Osaka city and prefectural governments into a metropolitan government similar to Tokyo's. He hopes to create a top-down system with power concentrated on the head of such a metropolitan government in order to eradicate overlapping administrative actions between the Osaka city and prefectural governments and to buoy the local economy. Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu vehemently opposes his idea.

In April 2010, Mr. Hashimoto launched a local party called Osaka Ishin-no Kai (Osaka Restoration Association), which will concentrate on local politics within Osaka Prefecture and will refrain from seeking seats in the Diet. As a first step to establish a political foundation to follow through with his idea, he plans to control both the Osaka city and prefectural assemblies. His party will run more than 100 candidates in local elections in April to elect members of the Osaka city and prefectural assemblies and the city assembly of Sakai in Osaka Prefecture.

Mr. Hashimoto hopes that at least 55 candidates from the party will be elected to the Osaka prefectural assembly and 44 candidates from the party to the Osaka city assembly so that the party will secure more than a majority in both assemblies.

Mr. Hashimoto even hinted that he may step down from the governorship and run in the Osaka city mayoral election, which is likely to be held in November. In that case, he will make efforts so that both the gubernatorial and mayoral elections will be held on the same day and that a candidate who supports his idea will run in the gubernatorial election. He may be trying to change the mind of Osaka Mayor Hiramastsu by hinting that he will run in the mayoral election.

In Nagoya, Mayor Kawamura led a signature collection for a referendum to recall the city assembly, which opposes his proposal for making permanent a 10 percent cut in Nagoya citizens' residential tax and halving the number of city assembly members and their pay. On Dec. 15, the city's election management commission decided that a sufficient number of signatures had been collected, enabling the holding of a referendum.

Mr. Kawamura will step down as Nagoya mayor and run again in a mayoral election in February to be held simultaneously with an election to elect a new governor of Aichi Prefecture. The referendum is also expected to be held on the same day. In the elections, Mr. Kawamura will act in concert with Mr. Hideaki Omura, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House, who will run in the gubernatorial election. Mr. Omura calls for instituting a 10 percent cut in Aichi Prefecture residents' residential tax — a copy of Mr. Kawamura's idea for Nagoya — and creating a Chukyo metropolitan government by integrating the Nagoya city and Aichi prefectural governments.

In preparation for local assembly elections in April, Mr. Kawamura has established his own local party called Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan) with the aim of gaining control of the 70-member Nagoya city assembly. Mr. Omura plans to launch his own local party Nippon Aichi-no Kai (Japan Aichi Association) to field candidates for the Aichi prefectural assembly election and in municipal assembly elections outside Nagoya.

If Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Kawamura succeed in their attempt, the strength of the existing national parties like the Democratic Party of Japan and the LDP in Osaka and Aichi prefectures will be weakened. These parties have to devise policy proposals and field candidates attractive to voters.

Since the ideas put forward by Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Kawamura are fresh, their moves may be appealing to voters. But it is necessary for them to seriously consider whether their moves will enhance their well-being. The resident tax cut as proposed by Mr. Kawamura gives no benefit to low-income people because they are already exempt from the payment of the tax. Such a tax cut will reduce the size of the budget, which could in turn translate into worsening of administrative services and reduction of social welfare spending.

Under the Local Autonomy Law that governs Japan's local governments, local assemblies have a vital function of scrutinizing the behavior of local government heads and of having constructive discussions on policy matters. They first must strive to live up to the expectations.

But the attempt by Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Kawamura to control the assemblies concerned will deprive them of their important function. Once this happens, it will be difficult for local residents to control the heads of their local governments. It is also undeniable that the two politicians' moves smack of populism. The voters in Osaka and Aichi prefectures need to think deeply before they cast their votes.



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