Local politics face a crisis

Nearly 1,000 local elections were held across Japan this month, covering about 30% of the country's electoral districts. These were the first local nationwide elections in four years, and candidates could be heard throughout the country imploring voters for support. However, despite this, a number of lawmakers were elected without a vote.

Of the 41 prefectural assembly elections held this month, nearly 30% were won by candidates who ran unopposed. Over 600 lawmakers were elected in this manner, the highest number ever.

A record number of candidates were elected unopposed in assembly elections in towns and villages as well. 20% won uncontested votes, nearly 1,000 candidates.

About 30% of city mayoral elections were also decided without votes and 45% of town and village leader elections were won uncontested.

Between January and March this year, NHK sent a survey to all 32,000 local politicians across the country, receiving answers from 20,000.

Nearly 70% said they feel voters are uninterested in local politics. Some say very few residents come to assembly meetings, despite efforts to encourage attendance. One politician says the effort required for their work is not worth the reputation and reward that comes with it.

Professor Yukio Maeda, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo, says this is a worrying sign for democracy.

"I think the problem of declining candidates is related to the shrinking sector of self-employed people and people who work for medium and small-sized businesses. These people traditionally supply a large number of local candidates. Japan currently has a very strict rule saying people have to quit their jobs to run for office. I think this is a hurdle that very few people are willing to take. I think it's necessary to make it easier for people to run, and we have to loosen regulations."

Yukio Maeda, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo

Rising number of female candidates

However, some see hope in the fact that female lawmakers are increasing in local elections. There was a slight increase of candidates and winners after these April elections, part of an overall upward trend in recent years.

The number of female governors did decrease slightly from 3 to 2 after the recent elections. But despite this there was a record number of female winners in the prefectural assembly elections, over 230 or 10%. And 6 female city mayors were elected, the highest number ever.

Maeda says Japan needs to focus on encouraging even greater female participation in politics.

"I think it's a continuation of the long-term trend, and we need more female politicians. But I think it's strange to wish for equal representation of men and women only in politics. We have to have equal representation of men and women in business and other professions. That would create a steady supply of female candidates."

Effect on national politics

Japan is holding Upper House elections this summer. Usually, political parties try to increase their numbers in the preceding local elections and throw their support behind a candidate.

However, there was a serious situation for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in gubernatorial elections in Fukuoka and three other prefectures. LDP lawmakers were split and supported different candidates. Maeda says this may adversely affect the party this summer, especially since the Upper House elections are being held in the same districts as the gubernatorial races.

"It may have a very negative impact on the upcoming Upper House election because the party cannot coordinate activities in these prefectures. They may have a bit of problem this summer."

But he adds that the opposition party may not be in a strong enough position to capitalize.

"I'm not sure whether the opposition parties can take advantage because they themselves are in disarray. That's the problem."

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