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Number 1 Shimbun

The "Feeling a Little Bit Better" Election

 

No1-2016-08ElectionWinning smile
PM Shinzo Abe, center, on election night


An in-depth look at how things played out in the recent race for the upper house

by Michael Cucek

M

ost elections are characterized as having smiling winners and crying losers. Though descriptions like “landslide” and “massive victory” have been bandied about following the 2016 House of Councillors election, the results gave everyone reasons to smile and reasons to wince.

The predictions had been depressing. The opposition Democratic Party was going to be annihilated in the districts. The ruling coalition would romp to victory, seizing a two-thirds majority, and delaying indefinitely structural reforms in favor of a corrosive fight to revise the Constitution. More than half the electorate, demoralized, would fail to cast a ballot.

However, on the way to the bottom, the unexpected happened: the Democrats did not disintegrate and the two-thirds majority, though achieved, is unreliable. Most importantly, people showed up to vote. Not in droves, maybe, but in sufficient numbers to generate some surprises and reinvigorate the political process.

To be clear, the LDP won. Its share of seats in the House of Councillors rose from 115 to 120. Its coalition ally, the Komeito, also added five seats, returning the ruling coalition an unshakable majority of 145 of the 242 seats in the chamber. Paired with the more than two-thirds majority the ruling coalition parties hold in the House of Representatives, the government of Shinzo Abe retains the ability to pass any legislation it desires.

 

Most importantly, people showed up to vote. Not in droves, maybe, but in sufficient numbers to generate some surprises and reinvigorate the political process.

 

To be sure, the Democratic Party lost. It shed 11 seats from what was an already significantly depleted total. With the DP clinging to only 32 seats while the LDP snatched up 55, Japan lost the last political arena wherein a competitive two-party system still existed on the national stage.

The unique four-party alliance of the DP, the Communists, the Socialists and Livelihood failed to achieve its existential goal: preventing the government of Shinzo Abe from gaining any pathway to a two-thirds majority. The pathway opened up by the 2016 election is a convoluted one, no doubt. Starting with the ruling coalition’s 145 seats and the one independent elected with LDP/Komeito approval, Mr. Abe and his allies need to add the seats of the Initiatives from Osaka (Osaka Ishin no Kai), the seats of the tiny militant nationalist Party of Japan Kokoro (Nihon no kokoro o taisetsu ni suru to) and seats of independent fellow travelers to reach the 162 seats necessary to propose an amendment to the Constitution.

MEANWHILE, THE LESSER MEMBERS of the anti-revisionist alliance went into eclipse. The Socialists and Livelihood each lost one seat. The Socialists, in fact, lost the seat of its party leader, putting the party below the five-seat limit for public funding (it will continue to receive funds thanks to an alternate standard of having won more than 2 percent of the proportional vote). The Communists added three seats but visibly lost momentum, since their seat gains in the 2013 and 2014 elections were so much greater.

Despite all the pre-election attention, participation of 18- and 19-year-olds for the first time in a national election was largely a damp squib. Slightly more than 45 percent of these newly enfranchised teenagers cast ballots, a turnout rate nearly 10 points below the national average. Put another way, having teenagers vote reduced overall voting rates.

When these youngest voters did vote, their choices were conservative. Exit polling found that persons in the 18- to 29-years-of-age cohort voted for the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition at a rate higher than any other age bracket. Deference, not defiance, seems to have been the guide. Under the influence of Dad, Mom and high school, 18-year-olds showed up to the polls more than half the time (51.17 percent turnout). Under less direct pressure to perform civic duties, fewer than four out of ten 19-year-olds cast a ballot (39.66 percent turnout).

 

Exit polling found that persons in the 18- to 29-years-of-age cohort voted for the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition at a rate higher than any other age bracket.

 

So it was all good news for the ruling coalition. What about everyone else?

The surprise of the election was turnout. Opinion surveys conducted prior to election day found record low levels of interest, indicating turnout would be below 50 percent. However, when the polls closed, 54.7 percent of the electorate had shown up, a two-point gain in turnout from 2013 and above the turnout even of the 2014 edition of the normally higher House of Representatives elections. For the first time since Shinzo Abe had returned to the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, more persons voted in national election than in the preceding contest.

ANOTHER SURPRISE WAS THE performance of the Democratic Party and the candidates it supported. The DP rolled into the election with largely the same low level of public support as it had in 2013 – about 9 percent of voters as measured by telephone opinion polls. But the outcome was significantly different. While the predecessor party, the DPJ, had suffered a crushing defeat in the 2013 House of Councillors contest, losing 27 seats while keeping only 17, the DP this time lost only 11 seats, retaining 32.

Part of the reason for the DP’s resurgence was the higher turnout. Exit polls in the last few elections have shown a consistent pattern: increases in turnout favor opposition candidates by a two-to-one margin. Put into unit terms, for every three additional voters that show up at the polls, the opposition gets two votes while the ruling coalition gets one. That advantage snowballs, quickly transforming toss-up districts into opposition wins.

In addition, while the four opposition party electoral alliance failed in its stated goal, it seems to have improved the chances of opposition candidates in the single-member districts (SMDs). Having the Communists give up their policy of running a candidate in every district seems to have produced the result political observers had always assumed true but never had had a chance to test. An alliance candidate won in 11 of the 32 SMD contests – a complete changeover from 2013, when the DPJ prevailed in only two of the SMDs. Sweetest for the opposition were the knockouts of two sitting Cabinet ministers: Aiko Shimojiri in Okinawa and Mitsuhide Iwaki in Fukushima.

 

It was the Happiness Realization Party – the fringe, hard-line nationalist party backed by the Happy Science cult – that replaced the Communists in their traditional role as electoral spoiler.

 

In fact, it was the Happiness Realization Party – the fringe, hard-line nationalist party backed by the Happy Science cult – that replaced the Communists in their traditional role as electoral spoiler. In the aforementioned Fukushima, Aomori, Niigata, Mie and Oita prefectures, the vote totals for the Happiness candidate was greater than the victory margin of the opposition candidate over his or her LDP rival.

The appeal of Japanese victimhood and anti-foreign attitudes decreased among the electorate. The Party of Japanese Kokoro, vehicle of notorious historical revisionists and DPRK-abductees-issue opportunists Kyoko Nakayama and her husband Nariaki, failed to win a single seat. Anti-Korean/anti-Chinese hatemonger Nobuyuki Suzuki saw his share of the vote in the Tokyo district election fall to half of what it was three years ago, even as the vote for the loopy Happiness candidate stayed the same.

SOME VERY PROMINENT REVISIONISTS did win on July 10. Comfort-women denier Hiroshi Yamada, removed from the Diet by the 2014 electoral reversals of the Japan Innovation Party, won a seat as a candidate on the LDP’s proportional list. Now a freshman LDP legislator with a crowd of competitors, he will probably not be given the opportunities to loft provocative, war responsibility-denying, global headline-generating questions at Prime Minister Abe as he did so often in between 2012 and 2014.

Also returning to the Diet for another six-year term is Junko Mihara, whose devotion to the myths of the Meiji state is disturbing. In 2015 she stunned Finance Minister Taro Aso and the House of Councillors budget committee by using a previously unspeakable pre-1945 slogan as a justification for a change in tax law. Mihara’s blithe toss out of hakko ichi’u (“all the world under one roof”), one of only two phrases banned by Allied Occupation authorities, did not hurt her at all in the polls. Indeed, the former actress, singer and race-car driver finished first by a huge margin in her Kanagawa constituency, with over a million votes. On election night, famed news commentator Akira Ikegami baited her, asking her if she believed that the mythical (at least according to historians and textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education) Emperor Jimmu was an actual historical person. Mihara answered that for her he was.

 

Also returning to the Diet for another six-year term is Junko Mihara, whose devotion to the myths of the Meiji state is disturbing.

 

Interesting in terms of potential policy stances was the outcome of the so-called “organized vote” of the two main parties. The DP has the image of being the party of the internationalized, primarily white-collar, urban and suburban voters, but in fact, the DP’s backbone is in the labor unions. The DP’s proportional list results reflect this dependency. The DP won 11 proportional seats in 2016, 7 of which will be filled by union executives. Indeed, the DP’s top three proportional vote winners were of leaders of Rengo, the autoworkers association and Panasonic’s company union.

BY CONTRAST, THE LDP saw saw a reduced role for the organized vote in its proportional seat totals. While Zentoku, the private postmasters principal association, did manage to win the top spot on the LDP’s proportional list with an astonishing 520,000 votes for its candidate (so much for former PM Koizumi’s 2005 Post Office reform election designed to destroy the power of the postmasters), the next organized vote group, the dreaded Nokyo agricultural association, slipped in at only eighth on the list (236,000 votes). Overall, the LDP’s jigsaw puzzle of primary interest groups – the industry lobbies, the professional associations, former SDF officers and representatives of the War Bereaved Association (the Izokai) claimed fewer than half of the LDP’s proportional seats. And almost all of those were in the bottom half of the proportional list. If votes and seats equal influence over policy, the LDP is quietly slipping the grip of its anti-reform support groups.

Finally, the election provided a bittersweet result for the author. I had bet what little professional reputation I have on the election’s not hinging upon the LDP and its allies gaining the 162 seats necessary for a two-thirds majority. Instead, I wagered the more significant number was 57 – the number of seats the LDP would need to win to form a tandoku seiken, a government of the LDP only, without any coalition partners. I went as far as to guarantee the LDP would achieve this result, with an immediate, obvious destabilizing effect on the party’s current coalition with the Komeito.

 

Instead, I wagered the more significant number was 57 – the number of seats the LDP would need to win to form a tandoku seiken, a government of the LDP only, without any coalition partners.

 

In the end, the LDP failed to win 57 seats, coming tantalizingly close with 55 outright victories and one win by the virtual LDP candidate in Kanagawa. Abashed and ashamed was I.

However, two days after election my prediction came true, in a fashion. The LDP received a membership application from Tatsuo Hirano, a member of the House of Councillors not up for election. Hirano’s political party, the New Renaissance Party, had been one casualty of the election. After losing two seats, including the seat of its leader, the party immediately disbanded, casting Hirano adrift. Hirano, an opportunist of the first rank, immediately applied to join the LDP, a party he ran against only three years ago.

I felt a little bit better – but only a little bit. At this writing, one week after the election, the LDP still has not decided on whether or not to accept Hirano’s application.

Michael Cucek is a Tokyo-based consultant to the financial and diplomatic communities and author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society.

 

 

Published in: August 2016

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