Sunday, May 20, 2007

Elections Outlook - A first crack

The other day Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and head of the Democratic Party Ozawa Ichirō had a a little debate in the Diet about taxes, social welfare costs, the role of the emperor under the Constitution, reform of education, the future use of the Self Defense Forces and a ski area in Fukui Prefecture.

In other words, they were talking about the July elections.

According to most accounts, the elections will be won or lost in the single seat districts.

The reason for this is not too difficult to tease out. In the two-seat districts, one seat will go to the LDP and the other to the DPJ. That is just the way it is, unless one is in Hiroshima Prefecture, where the LDP usually grabs both seats.

In the the three seat districts, barring a miracle, the seats will be split in between the LDP, the DPJ and a Komeito candidate (I will go through each of the districts in a later post to confirm such three way contests are the likely finishing lineup).

In Tokyo, anything goes--the Communists might retain their seat, the LDP might steal one from the DPJ.

As for the at-large seats, the handouts will be made according to prime ministerial popularity. If Prime Minister Abe continues to stay steady in the polls at the same levels he is at now, then the LDP will likely take half the 48 seats up for grabs, with the DPJ and the Komeito splitting the rest--Socialists and Communists each losing at least an at-large seat unless they get on the morning shows and I mean pronto.

What remains are the single seat districts, and here is where the ski area is important.

The two, three and four seat districts are all highly urbanized prefectures, by definition. The single seats districts, the only place where the DPJ can take a seat away from the LDP, are all by definition rural, poor, underpopulated and dependant on public spending to stay afloat.

The ski area in question, located in Fukui Prefecture, had been established in order to draw tourists to the area. Now the local municipalities went into debt to build the ski area and operated it for years and years with ever increasing losses. Finally in 2005, local authorities shut the ski area down, the whole shebang having blown an immense whole in the local budget.

Now the local authorities argue that the reason the ski area failed was not that it had been in the wrong place offering the wrong service at the the wrong price but because the national government had resisted calls to widen the access road to the ski area so that the road could accommodate the cars of enough skiers and snowboarders to make the ski area a profitable business.

The dispute of the central government's role in the failure of the ski area, and the fiscal catastrophe it and a myriad other ill-conceived local projects have left behind, cuts right to the current electoral strategies of the main political parties.

The Democrats, having started out as the anti-Tanaka-pork-barrel fiscal reformist politicians, have been scrambling to junk their fiscal-tightening core policies in order to try to portray themselves as the true allies of the rural voters--with all the right views on agricultural and road building support. It is a bit of a stretch for the party but the leadership is promising it will not abandon the local areas just to balance the central government balance sheet.

Now the DPJ has a viable point, in theory. During the Koizumi years, the central government was practically at war with the local areas, fighting to keep cash in the capital. The Prime Minister's men took on all of the major tribes in the Diet, most particularly the Road Tribe, to break the parasitic hold the rural prefectures had had on the economy.

The LDP, in other words, has a history over the last five years of accepting rural votes, then stiffing the local areas something fierce.The DPJ wants to snatch those votes by promising to take care of the rural areas.

This was Ozawa Ichirō's great innovation as he took over as leader--and in a country with a unicameral legislature, this identity switch just might entice rural prefecture voters to switch to the DPJ.

However, everyone knows that no matter the outcome in the July House of Councillors elections, the real power to decide the fate of the rural districts lies in the House of Representatives...a place where the LDP holds a supermajority.

Now there is a word for citizens of a prefecture dependant on government subsidies and handouts who vote against the ruling party.

That word is "stupid".

Combine this basic "knowing where your rice and fish come from" impetus--based a promise the government knows it does not have to honor--with the Abe Clique's special message of loving the Emperor, patriotism, traditional gender roles and respect for the nation's honored dead (remember the demographics of the rural areas are strongly titled toward the elderly) and you have a potent, almost omnipotent electoral strategy in the single-seat districts that the DPJ can only bang its poor little pointed head upon.

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