The ABCs of the Hokkaido Gubernatorial Contest
SNA (Singapore) — What’s cooking in the cauldron of politics in the northernmost prefecture of Japan? The house special this month is alphabet soup starring the letter R and the letter P, and featuring the numbers 3 and 4; and introducing Tomohiro Ishikawa and Naomichi Suzuki.
Come Sunday on April 7, voters will flock to polling stations in eleven prefectures to choose their new governor. Of these, the main event is undoubtedly the contest up in Hokkaido in which the incumbent governor has heeded a calling to seek new political pastures in Tokyo, leaving the tussle between two new gubernatorial hopefuls. Why the marquee billing? Hokkaido is the only battleground which sees a direct one-on-one matchup between a candidate from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party against a candidate supported by five main opposition political parties. It is thus seen as the main litmus test of how the Upper House elections will swing three months later. The rising populace discontent over the continuing economic doldrums and corruption scandals scarcely make a scratch on the steamrolling Liberal Democratic Party machine buoyed by a weak opposition, voting apathy, and to some extent, the Abe-Trump bromance.
Rising to the challenge of an unprecedented united opposition which had openly proclaimed to concentrate their best resources to wrestle Hokkaido prefecture from the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling coalition decided to abandon their conservative logic and put forward an untypical candidate to the chagrin of some party factions. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not to be deterred. Together with the firm support of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga and their Komeito coalition partner, they overruled even the objections from the largest Hosoda political faction in the Liberal Democratic Party to put all their eggs behind a fledgling candidate. With five opposition parties rallying around a challenger endorsed by Ichiro Ozawa, the contest not only becomes a proxy war for the July elections but reignites the epic struggle between the Liberal Democratic Party and its arch-nemesis.
With days left before the voting booths open, the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito despatched wave after wave of heavyweights to brave the cold Hokkaido winds in support of their contender, Naomichi Suzuki. One after another, from Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, to Liberal Democratic Party superstar Shinjiro Koizumi and even Hokkaido’s most wily old politician, Muneo Suzuki, had coddled and urged denizens in rallies in Sapporo, Hakodate and other main urban centers. Not to be outdone, the newly minted governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, embarked on the longest domestic flight from Naha to Sapporo, to throw his support behind the unified opposition contestant, Tomohiro Ishikawa. Both camps are sparing nothing on a full charm offensive since nomination day with two weeks of campaigning.
They demonstrated marketing is not just limited to business but to every facet of society and life, and in this case, politics. The textbook fundamentals of marketing is paraded in clear sight as both candidates spew the 4 Ps of Product, Place, Promotion and Price.
Tomohiro Ishikawa is selling the promise of freedom and independence, for the ability to exercise greater autonomy in the governance of the prefecture and loosening the umbilical cord of the whims of the national government. He effuses on the path towards more self-reliance given the richness of resources within Hokkaido, with a telling argument that the northern frontier boasts an agricultural industry which produces enough food to feed their own 5.5 million population twice over.
With little experience under his belt, the Liberal Democratic Party is banking on the personality of Naomichi Suzuki himself in putting forward a popular candidate product all wrapped up in youthful exuberance and tied with a big Liberal Democratic Party-endorsed bow. His eight years as the country’s lowest paid mayor in the only bankrupt tiny municipality of Yubari is held up as a tour of duty which has molded him into a local hero of sorts. While Ishikawa is a Hokkaido native, Suzuki can boast to be its favorite adopted son.
Location, location, location. Tread inside this room, and the polarization in ideology and policy between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the political opposition suddenly becomes very evident. Suzuki’s rhetoric heavily laces on the Tokyo government as a benevolent godfather watching over the interests of the people of Hokkaido. The message is clear, patronage and deference to the central powers come with rewards and security, vote for me because I am a safe vote. This ‘more good years’ pitch is challenged by Ishikawa as fiction, arguing the little to show in the last fifteen years of an Liberal Democratic Party-led Hokkaido. The prefecture has one of the highest unemployment rate in the country. It ranks the lowest is accessibility to services by the OECD because of its low infrastructure development, and the situation hasn’t gotten any better with the loss-making JR Hokkaido plans to de-commission unprofitable rail routes. Suzuki echoed the national government’s rhetoric to migrate people into urban centers to overcome the infrastructural problems. This is dismissed as defeatist by Ishikawa chastising the present administration’s lassitude leading to the current state of affairs.
The rousing call by the opposition camp seeks to stimulate a rekindling of the local spirit in the people of Hokkaido, to strive to develop innovative enterprises in each region, and not rely only on government handouts. Ishikawa contends that Hokkaido already possesses rich resources in agriculture, natural land resources and tourist assets. Prevaricating specific policies and plans, Suzuki rallies gravitate around building on winning hearts with his cherubic youth and charisma, channeling the sense of vigor and dynamism his office will bring to the table. And that’s not all! Each rally is supported by heavy artillery with appearances by top Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito leaders endorsing the candidate. It is an adroit move to broaden the demographic reach beyond the usual Liberal Democratic Party coalition’s votebank.
The establishment candidate pinpoints the literal here with the assurance of all the economic security entailing a loyal fiefdom to the Liberal Democratic Party government. It is a tried-and-tested strategy that had worked almost all of the time, playing on the people’s fears and tendency to keep the status quo than face the uncertainty with change. What if it is a change for the worse? At what price? is the metaphorical rebuttal from Ishikawa. Have the fiscal and economic policies of the national government suited the interests of Hokkaido? Subscribing to a more balanced level of governance between the prefecture and Tokyo, Ishikawa plead with the people to consider the loss of a social contract. Here, Ishikawa is more articulate in outlining a policy framework that specifically addresses core issues in the prefecture. In contrast, Suzuki has been light on the details, opting for a more general “I will do my utmost for the people” in his best genial and disarming face.
Railway, Radiation, Resort
Two weeks in, the media has narrowed in on three main issues of debate that will influence which box voters will cross on the ballot slip. This is now widely reported in the media as the three “R”s.
<Railway> The rationalization and consolidation of the railway lines has been seething for quite some time now with no apparent solution in sight. A US$350 million government bailout last year has failed to stem the spiraling operations of the loss-making JR Hokkaido, leaving residents faced with the uncertainty of even less transportation connectivity within the prefecture. Decommissioning lesser utilized and hence non-profitable lines seem to be the only unenviable road that is left.
<Radiation> Hokkaido is home to three of the remaining 35 nuclear power reactors in Japan after 19 reactors were permanently decommissioned following the tragic Tohoku earthquake which triggered the deadly tsunami in 2011. After eight years, only nine reactors have been restarted because of strong public resistance. The three reactors in the western coastal town of Tomari is pending approval to restart operations in line with the Liberal Democratic Party’s government’s policy to restore the country’s reliance on nuclear energy to fulfill 20% of the country’s power needs as opposed to the opposition’s stance to eradicate nuclear power.
<(Integrated) Resort> The past three years have seen the local precincts of Tomakomai, Kushiro, and Rusutsu showing their interest to host an integrated resort (IR) development under newly enacted laws that would allow casino gambling. With an IR comes the promise of billions of dollars of capital investment which will create thousands of jobs, high influx of tourism and broad spillover benefits for the locality, and of course lucrative tax monies. As many as twenty locales around the country are vying for the first three coveted licenses as a quick means for economic rejuvenation.
With only days left before Election Day, Suzuki has been reticently silent in his rallies on these trio of topics. Even when raised in public debate forums with Ishikawa, he stubbornly refused to elaborate on the subjects save for general statements that are in consistency with the national government’s position. Similar incisive questioning from reporters in media interviews were deflected with vagaries that incensed the media to castigate his ‘softness’ and lack of a clear policy manifesto for his candidacy. Still, he had led in early polls by the strength of the patronage of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, and the allure of his youthful zest. It won him the support of the middle-aged adult demographics and likely the female gender, but the older generation making up the largest demographic proportion remains largely skeptical. The key to a Suzuki victory would be to galvanize the young adults to vote but this is the group with the most apathy to politics and represents the group with the historically lowest voter turnout.
Suzuki and his camp has been zeroing in on Ishikawa’s ‘tainted’ past where he was convicted for falsifying political fund reports six years ago. To this day, he maintained his innocence claiming he was coerced into a confession and that he was used as a political scapegoat and pawn by the ruling government against their arch-enemy, Ichiro Ozawa. Refusing to be drawn into the defensive, Ishikawa steadfastly stuck to his game plan of articulating a detailed policy framework for Hokkaido if he were to be elected by the people. He spoke at length in support of the construction of a biomass plant in Tomakomai in lieu of restarting the Tomari nuclear reactors whereby the plant will create new jobs for the people of the town instead of the town mayor’s plan for an integrated resort. Decrying the ills of gambling and addiction, he advocates a tourism strategy leveraging Hokkaido’s strengths in its natural beauty and expansive landscape, and its food agriculture industry.
The subject that Suzuki couldn’t really avoid is the rationalization of the prefecture’s railroads which overlaps the bigger debate around the de-population problem. The exodus of people towards urban economic centers out of the prefecture is not unique to Hokkaido. As the human capital slowly gets exhausted, rural areas invariably becomes more economically depressed as townships population dwindles. So while the prefecture capital city, Sapporo, had thrived, the 40% of the population in suburban areas continue to pine away. Towns shrink, services decrease, infrastructure gets depleted. And as the railway company begins to make the inevitable decision to shut down more rural lines with low utility, remote towns and villages are faced with being even more cut off from the rest of the prefecture. It is not a particularly easy problem to solve. Suzuki maintains the national government’s plan to consolidate their railways is the only viable option and hence voices a longer term proposition to coax rural communities to migrate to urban areas. Ishikawa is adamant centralization isn’t the answer and having people abandon their homestead where generations of families had lived is just not acceptable. The first rail branch line to be closed came into effect this week, and ironically is the line serving Yubari where Suzuki claimed his fame as mayor.
At the proxy battlefront, the votebanks behind Team Abe and Team Ozawa are as good as done and dusted. It is the roughly one-third of the population sitting on the fence who will decide whether a new Liberal Democratic Party starlet or the torchbearer of reinvigorated opposition alliance will hold court within the picturesque grounds of the official governor residence inside the quaint historical red-bricked facade building with its distinctive octagonal dome.
The Manchurian Candidate or The Revenant? The voice of the people of Hokkaido will speak on Sunday.
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