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Will Japan’s farmers support the LDP at the election?

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In Brief

One of the most important questions facing Japan’s LDP government in the coming Upper House election is whether it will win the farmers’ vote. The answer to this question lies partly in whether the agricultural cooperatives (Japan Agriculture, or JA) and its political organisations are backing LDP candidates in the 47 prefectural constituencies and the single proportional representation (PR) national constituency.


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JA’s political groups are vote-gathering organisations that influence farmers nationally and within individual prefectures by recommending candidates to their members. They have the biggest impact on the success or defeat of candidates in the 31 single-seat constituencies located in more rural/regional prefectures, so it is difficult for the LDP to ignore them as electoral players.

Many of these regional farmers’ organisations are deeply dissatisfied with the Abe administration’s policy of joining the TPP negotiations. This is the defining issue for them, just as it was in 2012 election. The LDP’s relationship with JA and its political groups can only be described as ‘delicate’, and a survey of the prefectural farmers’ political leagues nationwide reveals a mixed picture.

In Hokkaido, the prefecture likely to be the most affected by the TPP, there are indications of very strong concerns about this issue. There has been no endorsement of the Abe administration; instead, members of the prefectural farmers’ political league have been given a ‘free’ vote, as have those in Gunma and Tottori. In Tottori, the prefectural government’s trial calculation showed that dairy farming would be completely wiped out if Japan participated in the TPP.

In Iwate, the farmers’ political group simply gave support to candidates who oppose the TPP. In practice, this means candidates from Ichiro Ozawa’s People’s Life Party (PLP), Social Democratic Party (SDP), Japanese Communist Party (JCP) or Green Wind Party (GWP).

In Miyagi, Yamagata, Nagano and Hiroshima, the farmers’ political groups are backing opposition party members. In Yamagata, for example, the farmers’ political league is recommending the GWP candidate, explaining that ‘the TPP is a major point at issue — we put our emphasis on the individual candidates instead of their parties’. The rejection came as a big shock to the LDP party prefectural federation. In Aomori, the farmers’ group is recommending the PLP candidate, the JCP candidate and an Independent who is a former prefectural JA central union chairman standing with the DPJ’s endorsement.

In other prefectures — Akita, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Niigata, Gifu, Aichi, Fukui, Toyama, Ishikawa, Shimane, Ehime, Kagawa, Okayama, Yamaguchi, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Oita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Kagoshima — the farmers’ political groups are backing LDP candidates. The Ehime group justified its decision by saying that the LDP candidate ‘truly understands agriculture, rural areas and the JA group’. Yamaguchi is LDP Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Yoshimasa Hayashi’s seat, with a JA staff member explaining, ‘Hayashi is meant to protect agriculture in the administration. It is unthinkable to not recommend the MAFF Minister’. The Saga group, on the other hand, withdrew its recommendation for the LDP candidate to protest against Japan’s participation in the TPP negotiations.

The bottom line is that while complaining bitterly about the government’s TPP decision, the JA organisation has reluctantly decided to endorse LDP candidates in the majority of cases. In Kumamoto, the JA Central Union Chairman said, ‘We are not convinced about the LDP’s policy of participating in the TPP negotiations, but we took a realistic approach since we need to maintain a pipeline with the ruling party in the political world’.

JA wants, above all, to maintain its influence on the government. As stated by the chairman of the Miyagi prefectural farmers’ political league: ‘There were criticisms that we were “betrayed” by the LDP … but if we do not recommend their candidate it will make it difficult for us to make requests to the government in the future’.

Moreover, JA has a bad relationship with the DPJ stemming from Ozawa’s attempt to split farmers from their organisation in the 2007 and 2009 elections with the direct farm household income compensation scheme. Some JA leaders also blame the DPJ for making rapid strides towards participating in the TPP and argue that the LDP is the best for ‘engaging in negotiations to win the national interest in the current framework of political parties’ and ‘the opposition parties are harsher towards agriculture than the LDP’. Your Party and the Japan Restoration Party, for example, are calling for reforms to JA as well as promoting the TPP.

JA faces a situation where, according to a JA Group executive, ‘in the end, the LDP is the only one we can work with’. JA’s problem is that if it does not support the LDP its only friends will be minor opposition parties including the DPJ, and none of these opposition parties can stop Japan’s participation in the TPP. So JA is choosing to back the LDP to push for the best deal for Japanese agriculture in the TPP.

This will mean approaching the government through cautious members within the ruling party and focussing pressure on gaining exemptions for key agricultural items from tariff abolition. Each of the LDP candidates who received JA’s recommendations have signed policy agreements with it and will be required to cooperate in implementing these agreements, including opposing the TPP. If elected, they will form the usual group of hostile agitators pushing farmers’ interests from within the policymaking process. The Akita prefectural farmers’ political league backed the LDP candidate because he promised to protect the five key agricultural items (rice, wheat, beef, dairy products and sweetening crops) without fail. And if the government cannot protect them, he said, ‘we should withdraw from the negotiations’. The new LDP candidate in Kagawa also pledged to support the JA Group’s claims regarding exempting rice and other key items in the TPP negotiations.

As for the farmers themselves, it is difficult to know how much they will take their lead from their own organisation. The old equation ‘JA = the farmers’ is not as strong as before. Farmers’ interests will theoretically be covered by direct income compensation even if Japan does join the TPP, which is a much greater threat to JA’s bottom line because of lower domestic prices, which will reduce its trading profits. Many farmers are already wondering how much more they will receive in income compensation because of TPP participation.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

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