Thursday, 15 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 2) : PR = Personal Ratings

Looking at the newspaper coverage of the local elections, with their lists of candidates followed by their party affliations, it is often tempting to assume that a certain party is putting up a particular number of candidates for a given district, and they are all running together in a big happy party family. However, within the confines of an election battle, it quickly becomes clear that 'party' loyalties mean very, very little. A 'friend' running in the same election under the same party logo, is very much an enemy.

The system employed in local (Prefectural and City) elections is an echo from a former age of Japanese politics. Before the electoral reforms that swept in during the 1990s, General Elections were held in medium-sized, multi-member districts, elected on a 'First-Past the Post' (plurality) basis. This system--called the chusenkyokusei ('Medium-Sized Electoral District System') in Japanese--which simply delivered posts to those candidates who gained the most votes, was blamed for keeping small parties alive and preventing the cohesion of a real 'opposition'. So, in November 1994, the Electoral Reform movement thrust through a bill that changed the system; Members of the Diet were now elected using a fusion of single-member, plurality constituencies and a form of Proportional Representation (PR).

But, in City and Prefectural elections, the old system lives on. And on the local political scene, the politics of individual relationships means more than anything.

The ballot paper gives the voter a list of names--without party affliations--and, as one interviewee commented in a recent edition of the chunichi shimbun (15/03/07), votes "are cast on the basis of impressions of a candidate, not a party." Regardless of their political allegiences, candidates battle it out to garner personal support groups, preaching outside stations and knocking on doors so voters will remember their names when election-day arrives.

Gone are the difficult-to-read, cumbersome kanji (Chinese characters) that make up candidates' names. Instead, pre-election posters use the simple phonetic syllabary, hiragana, to help name-recognition when the time comes. 日比 becomes ひび; 近澤 is changed to ちかざわ.

Similarly, all manner of catchy slogans are dreamt up so that names spring to mind quickly and easily. One candiate Kentaro Hibi, has the luck to have a surname that is the synonym of 'every day'. "Learning every day; Striving every day" ("hibi manabi, hibi shojin") is his mantra. Toshiyuki Ogawa (whose surname means 'stream'), has adopted a childrens' song, 'Spring Stream' ('haru ogawa'), to try and boost his personal recognition. Round and round his bus drives, blaring out the dulcet tunes of 'haru ogawa', neatly side-stepping the law against campaigning before the official election period, whilst also upping his PR.

Of course, parties do have a role. Komeito campaigns using the ties of the religous group, Soka Gakkai, and the Japan Communist Party (JCP) draws in the red-dyed faithful. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is a popular party here on a national level (represented by Motohisa Furukawa), and a DPJ affliation can make use of that momentum. Ties to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) perhaps injects a flavour of expertise, professionalism or experience into a wannabe City Councillor's campaign. Although in this area it is probably more likely to conjour up images of corruption and pork-barrel.

Ultimately, on a local level candidates are on their own. The same party logo bears little relation to the election race itself. The local elections are a race to build individual personality cults; there are no teams.

R J F Villar

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