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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Voters turn to the safety of status quo

Nine incumbent governors returned amid no-message campaigning


Staff writer

Sunday's gubernatorial elections ended without drama or color, with voters flocking to the safety of the status quo.

They returned nine incumbents out of the 13 winners. Beneath the surface, however, the opposition camp made strides.

Despite tension over the upcoming Upper House battle between the ruling and opposition parties in July, political parties lacked presence and influence in this preliminary match.

"Voters couldn't find what they were looking for in the (new) candidates and that is why they voted for the incumbents -- they were the acceptable choice," said Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Those re-elected include Tokyo's Shintaro Ishihara, the hawkish and outspoken independent formerly with the Liberal Democratic Party, and Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, an independent who used to be with the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party.

Despite media reports and comments by political analysts that voters are beginning to back independents not tied to parties, none of the incumbents lost in this race.

Tanaka said Ishihara is a perfect example of why this trend actually has nothing to do with the political parties or independent status.

"What the voters want is someone with a clear vision and leadership, regardless of political ties," Tanaka said. Former comedian Sonomanma Higashi did not win the Miyazaki gubernatorial election in January because he was an independent, but because he gave voters a clear vision of his policies, he said.

Articulating a clear vision helped bring Shinzo Abe the prime ministership as it did his long-serving predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Tanaka said. Abe, however, is coming up short.

"Both (lawmakers) may have similar visions, but Koizumi showed he had a clear vision and leadership, while Abe lacks that," he said.

Koizumi enjoyed strong public support when he was in power, but Abe's Cabinet has been losing ground since it was formed last September.

Both of the major parties suffered weaknesses.

The DPJ, for example, couldn't even find enough candidates to run against the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc. Of the 13 governorships at stake, the DPJ could only run in five.

"As the opposition party, the first thing (the DPJ) must do is give the general public and voters the opportunity to make a choice," said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan. "For the voters, without a candidate from the largest opposition party, there is no point in voting."

Even in Tokyo, considered the most important contest of all, the DPJ failed to find anyone able to champion its cause. In the end, it settled for indirectly backing former Miyagi Prefecture Gov. Shiro Asano, who decided to run at the last minute, and as an independent.

"The (Tokyo) gubernatorial election is not like the Lower House (which can be dissolved at short notice), and the DPJ knew four years ago it was coming," Shiratori pointed out. The fact that the DPJ could not find a candidate "exposes the party's weakness and lack of responsibility."

In the end, Ishihara won handily, getting 2.81 million votes to Asano's 1.7 million.

Of the other governorships, the DPJ picked up two victories, in Kanagawa and Iwate prefectures, while the LDP won in Tokyo, Hokkaido and Fukuoka.

While it appears the DPJ lost badly in this round, Shiratori said the top opposition force gained about 1 1/2 times more seats in prefectural assembly elections. This will help it in the future, including the July election for the Upper House, which will be crucial for both camps.

In the prefectural assemblies, the DPJ gained 170 seats to give it a total of 375, while the LDP lost 97 seats to fall to 1,212, its lowest ever.

"The central government has managed to establish a two-party system, but the DPJ has yet to achieve that position in local areas," Shiratori said. "However, the increase in prefectural assembly members is a sign that the DPJ is gradually gaining regional strength, too."

The ruling coalition manages to hold on to a majority in the 242-seat Upper House by combining the LDP's 109 members with New Komeito's 24. The DPJ holds 82 seats.

If the DPJ wins a majority in the Upper House, it could be the beginning of the end of Abe's Cabinet, which has already been shaken by scandals and other problems.

Ikuo Kabashima, a University of Tokyo professor who studies voting behavior, said the first skirmish of the Upper House election will take place April 22, when by-elections are held in Okinawa and Fukushima prefectures.

"For the LDP and New Komeito, which are struggling to collect as many seats as possible, this is a very important battle," Kabashima said. "Whether the LDP and New Komeito can (retain) a majority in the Upper House depends heavily on these two seats."

"If the DPJ wins, it will be able to recover faster from its defeat in the Tokyo gubernatorial election," he said.



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