At the best of times, elections provide social catharsis. Voters are given the opportunity to replace an under performing government with one that promises a brighter future. In reality, though, elections are messy, relative contests. Voters are choosing not their ideal government, but rather the best of available options. In the recent House of Representatives elections (Dec 16, 2012), the Japanese electorate clearly demonstrated its disenchantment with the reigning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), whose seat share collapsed from 48% to 12%. However, ex-DPJ supporters did not flock to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the eventual winner. Instead, they divided their ballots among a host of new or minor parties, or chose not to vote at all. As a result, the LDP dominated the election with 61% of the seats despite winning fewer absolute votes than they did in the last contest. The lopsided outcome was the product of voter disappointment with all parties, and the LDP won by default as the best of bad alternatives.
Explaining the Outcome: Disenchanted Voters
Voter disenchantment produced the LDP’s victory in two ways: declining partisanship and a collapse in voter turnout. While Japanese voters have traditionally been less partisan than in the United States or Western Europe, the ranks of “independents” have been growing since the mid-1990s. According to monthly opinion polls by the Jiji Tsushin, a Japanese wire service, close to 70% of the population declared no partisan affiliation leading up to the 2012 contest. This ratio has been increasing steadily since the last election in September 2009, suggesting that disaffection with the ruling DPJ was not translating into support for an LDP government. With so many undecided voters, twelve political parties and over 1500 candidates competed in the election. One prominent new entry was the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), led by Toru Hashimoto, the charismatic mayor of Osaka, and Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalistic governor of Tokyo. The JRP had formed in September 2012 under the banner of stronger regional governments and constitutional reform. Independent voters who rejected the status quo choice between the LDP and DPJ flocked to these outsiders. According to exit polls from the Asahi Newspaper, 28% of independents voted for the JRP in the proportional representation tier—where voters cast a ballot for a party instead of a candidate—compared to 19% for the LDP and 14% for the DPJ.
The second manifestation of voter disenchantment was the low, post-war record 59% turnout, a 10% drop from 2009. This fall was concentrated among former DPJ supporters, which allowed the LDP to improve its seat share despite winning fewer absolute votes. The LDP’s vote share in the PR tier rose marginally from 26.7% to 27.6%; in the constituency tier, the difference was slightly larger, from 38.7% to 43.0%. In absolute terms, however, the party’s votes actually fell by roughly 2 million. The more striking swing occurred to the DPJ, which received 20 million fewer votes in each tier. While some of these disenchanted DPJ voters transferred their support to the “Third Force” parties, many of them simply stayed at home.
What Can We Expect from the Abe Administration
It is a foregone conclusion that Shinzo Abe, the leader of the LDP, will become the next prime minister of Japan. This is his second go-around, after leading the LDP briefly from 2006 to 2007 before resigning due to poor health and to take responsibility for the party’s loss in the 2007 Upper House (House of Councilors) election. In fact, the Japanese cabinet has been extremely volatile since his first exit: Abe’s return marks the seventh prime minister since 2006.
We can divine the new Abe administration’s priorities through surveys of election candidates and voters. The Asahi Newspaper, in conjunction with Professor Masaki Taniguchi of the University of Tokyo, polled candidates on their policy positions prior to the election. 89% of victorious candidates strongly or somewhat support constitutional amendment, which in the Japanese case refers most prominently to the Article 9 “Peace Clause.” Under current interpretation, the constitution permits Japan to have a self-defense force, but it cannot use military power as a means to settle international disputes. Both the LDP and the JRP are in favor of establishing an official Japanese military with enhanced collective self-defense rights. This would include sending troops overseas to participate in international peacekeeping missions or in aid of the United States. Given Shinzo Abe’s nationalist credentials, the rightward turn of parliament has raised Chinese and Korean concerns that Japan will finally flex its muscles, possibly including the development of nuclear weapons and preemptive military action against North Korea.
This threat of Japanese militarization is likely overblown, at least in the short-term. Foreign policy is a low-salience issue for most voters, and Abe would risk too much by emphasizing militarism or constitutional reform above economic revitalization and nuclear energy policy. More voters listed economic growth and employment (35%), taxes and social welfare (30%), and energy policy (17%), as their top priorities, with constitutional reform or security policy trailing farther behind (12%). If anything, LDP voters are even less exercised about foreign policy, with 73% placing greater emphasis on growth, employment, and social welfare. Given the two-decade economic malaise, and with the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and nuclear meltdown in recent memory, there is little political upshot to focusing on a secondary issue.
Abe has already said that his administration will focus on economic recovery through an expansionary mixture of Keynesian public works spending and monetary easing. Neither policy will be easy: voters (and investors) are already worried about record-high deficits, and it remains to seen whether Abe can convince the Bank of Japan to accept his preferred 2% inflation target. However, it makes political sense to target these issues, because the LDP’s real hurdle is the upcoming Upper House election in July 2013. Unlike the House of Representatives, the House of Councilors uses a more proportionate electoral system that makes it difficult for one party to win a decisive majority. The LDP and DPJ have needed to form coalitions with minor parties to govern effectively, but should the LDP capture a majority, they can legislate without compromising their election promises to keep coalition partners on board. To do this, though, Shinzo Abe needs to demonstrate that his priorities are the same as that of voters: employment and growth first, taxes and welfare second, nuclear energy third, and foreign policy last.