Legislative elections were held in Japan on December 16, 2012. All 480 members of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Diet. The House of Representatives, with a two-thirds majority, can override the upper house’s veto on any piece of legislation. Japan uses a system of parallel voting in general elections. 300 of the 480 members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies, generally malapportioned in favour of rural areas while the other 180 seats are elected by party-list proportional representation in 11 electoral blocks. Unlike in Germany’s MMP system where the list seats serve to compensate disparities between vote share and seat share created by the single-member FPTP seats, in Japan’s parallel voting system the list seats merely proportionally reflect the vote shares on the list vote, which serves to magnify the effects of vote swings and allows parties to win large majorities. Until a 1994 reform of the electoral law, Japan used a system of single non-transferable vote (SNTV) in multi-member constituencies (which reflected the immediate post-war population distribution, so badly malapportioned in favour of rural areas) where voters had a single vote but 2 or more members were returned from a district. The SNTV system, still used for some local elections in Japan, created more proportional results and made it harder for parties to win crushing majorities on fairly small shares of the vote.
The 2009 election in Japan could have indicated a huge political realignment. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled Japan almost without interruption since its creation in 1955, suffered a crushing electoral defeat while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power with a huge two-thirds majority.
The LDP was founded in 1955 by the merger of two conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party. The party, generally conservative and anti-communist, governed Japan until the 1993 election, winning an absolute majority in every election until that point. The LDP dominated Japanese politics despite its decentralization, extreme factionalism, weak leadership and inner fragmentation. The LDP’s strength came from the corporatist-like “iron triangle” between the LDP, the professional bureaucracy and the upper echelons of big business. The LDP also maintained strong clientelistic relations with small businesses, farmers, construction workers and postmasters; alliances which proved electorally lucrative for the LDP in its rural strongholds. The conservative technocrats in the bureaucracy often led policy-making, with the input of the Diet and the LDP caucus/cabinet. The LDP’s corporatist association with big business did not provide votes, but it provided most of the private funding for the LDP, a factor which explains the deeply ingrained corruption and collusion which existed under successive LDP governments.
The elite bureaucracy implemented policies which allowed for rapid economic growth after the 1960s and resulted in a dramatic improvement in rural standards and income equality, even in rural areas.
The LDP’s policies were generally conservative, pro-American and pro-business but the party’s primary focus was to maintain and placate its key supporters rather than any conservative ideology. In its rural bases, competing LDP parliamentarians built strong local associations which channeled pork and other advantages to their constituents. Successive governments maintained their strong rural bases with sky-high import tariffs on rice, which kept the price of rice artificially higher than international prices.
The LDP, as mentioned above, was never a centralized party machine with strong leadership and internal cohesion; instead it was a fragmented and deeply factionalized party. Five major factions competed for power and the prime ministerial position within the LDP until the 1990s, with local parliamentarians eager to keep their seats under the SNTV system allying with factional bosses who provided them with funding for their personal local associations (the LDP had no party associations but rather candidate-centered personal associations) or gave them key party positions in return for their backing in internal leadership contests. One of the LDP’s most famous faction leaders and internal bosses was Kakuei Tanaka, who served as Prime Minister between 1972 and 1974 but who retained strong influence within the party afterwards, until Noboru Takeshita took control of Tanaka’s faction in the late 1980s.
As a fragmented and faction-driven party, policy making in LDP cabinets did not take place along traditional Westminster top-down lines but rather along collective, even bottom-up lines. Within the LDP, competing factions made for internal opposition and oversight of the Prime Minister. Factions sought to capitalize on any scandal or unpopular policy involving the Prime Minister, which then allowed them to push for the PM’s resignation.
Political and demographic changes in the country, compounded with several untenable corruption scandals involving key LDP bosses and unpopular decisions (including a consumption tax) led to the LDP’s “defeat” in the 1993 election. The LDP’s vote share fell by nearly ten points, and while it remained the most votes and seats (36.7% of the votes), it lost its overall majority for the first time since 1955 and allowed for a very disparate and directionless “eight-party alliance” to briefly take power. This multiparty coalition included new parties founded by LDP dissidents, most of them purportedly centrists and reformists. The largest of these LDP offshoots was the Japan Renewal Party, founded by Ichirō Ozawa, a former ally of Kakuei Tanaka who had found himself on the losing side of a factional fight with Keizo Obuchi and Ryutaro Hashimoto.
Dogged by internal divisions and personality squabbles, the first non-LDP multiparty government quickly dissolved and the LDP eventually regained the prime ministerial office in 1996. The multiparty coalition’s only achievement was an electoral reform which replaced the SNTV system with the current parallel voting system (though with more PR seats) and reapportioned single-member constituencies. The LDP returned to full power following the 1996 election. In that election, the traditional left-wing opposition to the LDP, formed by the Socialist Party (JSP) was replaced by the New Frontier Party, formed by several LDP offshoots including Ozawa’s party, and the Democratic Party (DPJ). The NFP, weakened by internal dissensions, dissolved in 1998.
In 2001, Junichiro Koizumi, an LDP reformist, replaced unpopular Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori as leader of the LDP. Koizumi’s accession represented the victory of an ambitious reformist faction in the LDP, which challenged the old guard and the vested interests in the LDP. Koizumi alienated several parts of the LDP coalition, notably postmasters after he privatized Japan Post. Koizumi’s reformist policies, at times, brought him closer to the opposition parties than to the old guard LDP factions.
In 2005, when several LDP parliamentarians rebelled against Koizumi’s postal privatization bill, he threw them out of the party and called a snap election. Most opposition factions besides the Communists and the remnants of the JSP (the SDP) had united in the DPJ by then, and in 2003 and 2004 had proven a serious threat to LDP dominance (the DPJ won the PR block vote in 2003). In 2005, however, with a Koizumi campaign focused on postal privatization and the need for change within the LDP, Koizumi was able to lead the LDP to a landslide victory over the DPJ. The LDP managed to obtain an historic three-fifths majority in the lower house. Particularly crucial to the LDP’s massive victory was their appeal to fickle and “floating” (the Japanese term for ‘swing voters’) urban voters in Tokyo or Osaka. In the past, the LDP had usually been weaker in urban areas.
An increasingly large number of Japanese voters are “floating voters” without strong partisan ties to either of the main parties (or the smaller parties). A lot of voters say that they remain undecided until the very last moment in any election, and the direction they break in often decides the winner or determines the strength of the winning party’s mandate. Urban areas are particularly fickle in this way, the LDP swept most of them in 2005 but they were decimated by the DPJ’s landslide in these same urban areas in the 2009 election. Rural areas have also slowly shifted away from their strong LDP partisan roots, because the LDP’s old patronage networks in rural Japan – fed by pork-barrel spending by local MPs and maintained by postmasters or farmers’ groups – has become increasingly anachronistic.
Koizumi’s retirement in 2006 precipitated the 2009 rout. He was succeeded by Shinzō Abe, a man on the party’s right with fairly nationalist views towards China and Japanese history. Abe’s term, which lasted only a year before he resigned because of his unpopularity (the LDP had been heavily defeated in upper house elections in 2007) and for health reasons, was widely described as disaster. He had chosen to focus on foreign issues rather than domestic policy and appeared to backtrack on Koizumi’s reformist agenda. Abe was replaced by the more centrist Yasuo Fukuda, who failed to reassert the reformist agenda and projected a boring image on TV. He too lasted less than a year, before resigning and being replaced by Tarō Asō, a nationalist on the LDP’s right. Unable to salvage the sinking vessel, Asō led the LDP to its worst ever electoral defeat in a snap election on August 30, 2009. Not only did the LDP fail to win the most votes and seats for the first time in its history, it won a mere 119 seats while the DPJ, led by Yukio Hatoyama, won a three-fifths majority similar to the outgoing LDP majority.
The LDP’s defeat was due in part to short-term factors, such as the country’s sluggish economy, high unemployment, Japan’s persistent deflation problem (ongoing since the 1990s bubble economy crash), a pensions records debacle, a series of hapless Prime Ministers who all lacked Koizumi’s special reformist appeal and a rebuilt opposition (in good part thanks to Ozawa, who had been forced to step down from the DPJ leadership a few months before the election because of a corruption scandal). Koizumi, by moving the party towards classical economics and free trade rather than staying true to the 55 System’s more statist patronage and corporatist policies, also had played a role in durably weakening the LDP’s rural networks which prior to the 1990s had provided the LDP with strong electoral support. But times had changed since then, the LDP’s old system of patronage and pork-barrel spending based on complex factional battles and competing networks of local rural parliamentarians became outdated. Modern electoral campaigns are won with policy proposals and clear(er) ideological directions, they are also won in the medias with telegenic charismatic leaders (like Koizumi).
The 2009 election and the LDP’s historic defeat was seen by many as a huge political realignment in Japan. Most questioned whether the LDP, as a factionalized and fragmented party with few major ideological preoccupations, would be able to survive such a defeat. However, the DPJ fell into the same vicious circle as the LDP, bumbling its way through and playing a game of musical chairs with Prime Ministers. Yukio Hatoyama, elected in August 2009, lasted less than a year in office, resigning in June 2010. Elected on a platform of breaking the old “iron triangle” and shifting Japanese foreign policy towards Asia rather than the United States, Hatoyama did not live up to the high expectations. The government waffled on the issue of the relocation of the American air base on Okinawa, after having promised during the campaign to close the base.
Hatoyama, who had won the DPJ’s presidency in mid-2009 with the support of Ichirō Ozawa, was quickly caught up by his mentor’s poisonous shadow. Ozawa had played a large role in rebuilding the demoralized and defeated DPJ after the disastrous 2005 election, turning the party into a strong, organized political machine capable of competing with the LDP and winning elections (which it did in 2007 and 2009). However, Ozawa is a controversial figure whose name has often come up in corruption scandals. Ozawa had the image of a young and ambitious reformist ready to go all-out against the LDP in 1993, but that aura has long disappeared. Ozawa now has the reputation of a power-hungry backroom party boss who wishes to turn the DPJ into his own personal machine, and organize it along the lines of the LDP under the ’55 System. After his resignation in May 2009, Ozawa kept pulling the strings with Hatoyama, who turned out to be Ozawa’s useful tool.
Caught up by a financing scandal of his own, Hatoyama resigned in June 2010, alongside Ozawa who resigned his position as secretary-general. After Hatoyama’s resignation, Ozawa lost control of the party. Naoto Kan, an Ozawa opponent, replaced Hatoyama just before the upper house elections in the summer of 2010. Kan squandered his honeymoon period with voters by announcing, just before the election, his intention to increase the consumption tax from 5% to 10%. He recovered, for a short while, some of his lost popularity after Kan defeated Ozawa in a regular DPJ presidential election in September. However, Kan’s popularity collapsed quickly thereafter. His government’s slow and tepid response to the March 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster was much criticized, while the sluggish economy and the country’s huge public debt remained major issues. Kan, having hit rock-bottom and under pressure by the DPJ to quit, resigned in September 2012. He was succeeded by Yoshihiko Noda, another anti-Ozawa figure within the DPJ.
Noda’s popularity, like that of his two predecessors, quickly fell (though he remained marginally more popular than his two predecessors at the end). Similar to Kan, Noda is a technocratic figure whose focus seems to be on policy (even if they are unpopular) and reforms, and his government has led various technocratic reforms – such as the consumption tax hike – which aim to deal with some of the structural issues in Japan’s economy. However, Noda – like Kan and Hatoyama before him – is horrible at messaging and defending the government’s record.
Japanese politics in the past year have been focused around three issues: the consumption tax increase, nuclear energy and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.
The government claims that the consumption tax is key to cutting Japan’s public debt and funding rising welfare costs (in a rapidly aging country). The consumption tax hike has been a divisive and controversial issue within the DPJ and in Japanese politics in general. The LDP supported the consumption tax increase, but the party tried to play political games with the issue, associating its support for the tax bill to promises for a snap election. Noda bowed down to the LDP’s demands and promised a snap election in return for the passage of his bill. The Ozawa faction of the DPJ had rejected the consumption tax increase, largely because Ozawa’s interests seem to be his personal political career rather than policy or governance. Ozawa left the party with about 50 MPs in July.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster led to an outburst of anti-nuclear sentiments in public opinion. Nuclear energy provided about a quarter of Japan’s energy supplies in 2010 and there were 54 commercial reactors in operation before the disaster. In response to public opinion, the government announced plans to phase out nuclear energy and shut down the remaining reactors. However, pressured by business leaders who feared energy shortages, Noda approved the reopening of 2 reactors. The DPJ policy is to completely phase out nuclear power by 2030, the LDP claims the DPJ’s policy is irresponsible.
Noda has staked his political career on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new free-trade framework between Asian-Pacific countries. The TPP would scrap tariffs and other trade barriers. While the business milieus are strongly supportive of the TPP, Japan’s heavily protected agricultural sectors opposes the TPP, fearing the effects of competition with big agricultural companies in the US.
Recently, a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, which is controlled by Japan but claimed by the PRC (as well as the ROC). The islands are strategically located, near major shipping routes, key fishing grounds and potential oil reserves. The Japanese government’s decision to purchase some of the islands from their private owner revived the dispute in September. China sent its navy into what Japan claims are its territorial waters. The incident, with sabre-rattling on both sides, has led to an escalation of tensions between Japan and China.
The DPJ has done a terrible job at defending its record in government. There are many grounds to call the DPJ’s performance disappointing, for sure, but the DPJ also has several sizable achievements. It introduced subsidies for young families, abolishedstate high school tuition fees, restored support for single mothers, extended unemployment insurance, introduced free services for low-income disabled people, and banned age discrimination in the provision of medical care. However, its disappointing economic record likely prevailed in voters mind. Kan and Noda were more technocratic figures who focused on policies and reforms aimed at resolving some of Japan’s long-term economic problems – the high debt (236.6% of GDP in 2012!), an economy mired in recession or low-growth since the 1990s, an aging population incurring high pensions and welfare costs and a recurring deflation problem.
The Other Parties
Following the 2009 election, Sadakazu Tanigaki became the LDP leader. A fairly dull and boring old politician with a fairly unremarkable political career, his performance in opposition was mediocre. He constantly attempted to play political games with the government, most recently on the consumption tax which he criticized before acquiescing to it in return for a snap election before voting a censure motion in late August. In September, Tanigaki was replaced as LDP leader by former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, whose last term in office is often viewed as disastrous.
The LDP and DPJ differed little on policy during the campaign. The LDP more or less supports the consumption tax hike, it would agree with the TPP if it could get some tariff exceptions for its old constituencies (farmers). They differed more on nuclear energy, where the LDP has deemed Noda’s policies to be irresponsible and says that it will make a decision later. Abe indicated that reviving the economy sapped by deflation would be his main priority. His economic policies are still vague, but the LDP wants the central bank to loosen monetary policy and it wants to inject money into the economy, notably through public works spending. A nationalist with a tendency to minimize or deny Japan’s wartime record (he denies the Rape of Nanjing, which is not an uncommon position on the right in Japan), he promises a more hawkish foreign policy – notably against China – and he might seek to revise Article 9 (the pacifist article) in Japan’s constitution.
The LDP’s traditionally is the New Komeito Party (NKP), a conservative party which is, unofficially, the political arm of the Nichiren Buddhist group Sōka Gakkai International. The NKP has a reputation as a fairly clean and non-corrupt party. The party, which usually has a fairly solid electoral base, suffered heavy loses (-10 seats) in the 2009 elections.
This electoral landscape was marked by several new political parties. The most important of these parties is the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), a right-wing/far-right party. The JRP was founded right before the election by the alliance of two parties – Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Association and Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara’s Sunrise Party (founded in 2010). Hashimoto, who served as governor of Osaka Prefecture between 2008 and 2011 and has been mayor of Osaka since then, has some very right-wing and nationalist views. He supports decentralization of powers to the regions, for example he wants to turn the consumption tax into a local tax administered by local governments. But he has some authoritarian penchants and openly said that Japan needs some kind of ‘dictatorship’. Shintarō Ishihara, the ex-LDP governor of Tokyo since 1999, holds similar nationalist and right-wing views. Like Hashimoto, he wants to scrap the pacifist Article 9 and he has a history of being aggressively anti-China (though he toned that down when he was invited to the Beijing Olympics in 2008). Ishihara at one point also openly said that women who live after they have given birth are “useless” and “committing a sin”.
Hashimoto and Ishihara are similar politicians, both are right-wing, nationalist and populist. Besides their penchant for controversy, both have been criticized as self-serving and supporting only what is politically expedient. Both of their parties merged in November, in the process both men dropped some of their policy disagreements: Hashimoto dropped his anti-nuclear positions, while Ishihara softened his opposition to the TPP. The JRP more or less supports the consumption tax, it is vague and ambivalent on nuclear power and is generally on the pro-TPP side of things. On foreign policy, the JRP is very hawkish. It would revise or scrap Article 9.
Divisions with the DPJ over the consumption tax, the TPP and even nuclear energy led several groups of DPJ parliamentarians to walk out of the party and form their own spin-off parties. In July, Ozawa and about 50 of his most loyal followers quit the DPJ, officially over Ozawa’s opposition to the consumption tax, the TPP and Noda’s more cautious nuclear policy. Ozawa and his followers founded an outfit called “People’s Life First”. The real reason for Ozawa’s split is likely that he is bitter that he has been sidelined by DPJ leaders and can no longer continue pulling the strings from behind.
Ozawa’s party, along with another DPJ splinters (the Kizuna Party, anti-nuclear and anti-TPP; plus the Tax Cuts Japan, anti-nuclear and anti-TPP), merged with the Tomorrow Party of Japan (TPJ), a new party led by Shiga Prefecture governor Yukiko Kada. The party has been called by some observers as ‘left-wing’, to the left of the DPJ. In reality, it is hard to assign an ideology to a fairly rag-tag bunch of third parties, especially one which includes Ozawa who has not held consistent policy views in decades. Such heterogeneous coalitions of competing third parties, all hoping to form some kind of “third pole” to the DPJ and LDP is not uncommon. The JRP isn’t the most ideologically consistent party, and Ozawa spent most of the summer and fall mulling over alliances with other third parties – the “Hashists”, Ishihara and other small parties. Either out of conviction or political expediency, the Tomorrow Party is the most anti-consumption tax, anti-nuclear and anti-TPP party.
The Your Party (YP) and the People’s New Party (PNP) are two more or less right-wing third parties founded by LDP breakaways. The YP, led by Yoshimi Watanabe, seems fairly ideologically consistent (a rarity with third parties): it is more or less libertarian, centre-right and reformist supporting lower taxes, free enterprise but opposing nuclear power. The PNP is a populist party founded back in 2005 by some anti-postal privatization LDP rebels. The PNP has now turned into an irrelevant close ally of the DPJ.
On the left, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has maintained a small and solid base of support in recent elections while the Social Democratic Party (SDP) are the disorganized remnants of the old JSP. The JCP is fairly moderate, having never really aligned with the Eastern Bloc. For example, the JCP is vaguely apathetic towards the Imperial Household, rather than opposed. The SDP, which has cooperated with the DPJ government, is not really ideologically distinguishable from the JCP (and is sometimes described as being to its left).
Turnout was 59.3%, the lowest turnout in a general election since the war. In 2009, 69.3% of voters had turned out, motivated by the chance to dump the LDP. The results are presented as follows: party – single-member (SM) constituency vote (%) – SM seats – block (PR) vote (%) – PR seats >> total seats. The total seat numbers are compared to standings at dissolution.
LDP 43.01% (+4.33%) SM winning 237 SM seats — 27.79% (+1.03%) PR winning 57 PR seats >> 294 seats (+176)
DPJ 22.81% (-24.62%) SM winning 27 SM seats — 15.49% (-26.92%) PR winning 30 PR seats >> 57 seats (-173)
JRP 11.64% (+11.64%) SM winning 14 SM seats — 20.50% (+20.50%) PR winning 40 PR seats >> 54 seats (+43)
NKP 1.49% (+0.38%) SM winning 9 SM seats — 11.90% (+0.45%) PR winning 22 PR seats >> 31 seats (+10)
YP 4.71% (+3.84%) SM winning 4 SM seats — 8.77% (+4.5%) PR winning 14 PR seats >> 18 seats (+10)
TPJ 5.02% (+5.02%) SM winning 2 SM seats — 5.72% (+5.72%) PR winning 7 PR seats >> 9 seats (-52)
JCP 7.88% (+3.66%) SM winning 0 SM seats — 6.17% (-0.86%) PR winning 8 PR seats >> 8 seats (-1)
Independents 1.69% (-1.12%) SM winning 5 SM seats >> 5 seats (-4)
SDP 0.76% (-1.19%) SM winning 1 SM seat — 2.38% (-1.89%) PR winning 1 PR seat >> 2 seats (-3)
PNP 0.20% (-0.84%) SM winning 1 SM seat — 0.12% (-1.61%) PR winning 0 PR seats >> 1 seat (-3)
NPD 0.53% (+0.53%) SM winning 0 SM seats — 0.58% (-0.04%) PR winning 1 PR seat >> 1 seat (-2)
Others 0.38% (-1.51%) SM winning 0 SM seats — 0.89% (-0.6%) PR winning 0 seats >> 0 seats (-1)
LDP-NKP Coalition 44.49% (+4.65%) SM winning 246 SM seats — 39.69% (+1.43%) PR winning 79 PR seats >> 325 seats (+186)
The LDP (and its usual coalition ally in the NKP) won a huge victory, taking a two-thirds majority in the lower house of the Diet; a two-thirds majority which will allow the government to override the upper house, where the DPJ still retains a bare plurality until elections for half of the seats next summer. The LDP’s rather phenomenal victory is the mirror opposite of what happened in 2009 and is basically a carbon copy of Koizumi’s 2005 mandate for postal privatization.
However, even if the LDP-NKP won a two-thirds majority and a massive landslide, the LDP’s victory can ironically be described as being somewhat “underwhelming” and the result of a backlash against the governing party rather than any upsurge in the LDP’s support.
The size of the LDP’s victory was magnified by Japan’s parallel voting system, under which it is much easier to win large absolute majorities on fairly small shares of the popular vote (unlike the old SNTV systems) because the PR component does not balance and compensate the disparities between vote share and seat share created by the FPTP component (unlike in MMP systems like Germany). This system had allowed the LDP to win a two-thirds majority in 2005 before allowing the DPJ to get its own two-thirds majority in 2009. Similar to the winning parties in the last two elections, the LDP-NKP this year utterly demolished the DPJ and the other parties (including the JRP) in the single-member constituencies, taking all but 54 of the 300 single-member constituencies in Japan.
Excluding Osaka, where the JRP won 12 of the 19 seats in the prefecture because of mayor Tōru Hashimoto’s local popularity and strong political machine (which includes the governor of the prefecture), the LDP was dominant in nearly every other region in Japan. Hokkaido, which used to be a strong point for the DPJ, turned into a major bloodbath for the DPJ, hindered in part because of local divisions (the NPD, which includes local ex-DPJ rebels, was strong on the island). In the politically decisive urban battlegrounds – Tokyo, Kanagawa (Yokohama), Aichi (Nagoya) and Saitama – regions where the opposition parties had historically been strongest but which have become increasingly politically contested in recent years as most urban voters have become “floating” swing voters (which altogether make up about 40% of the electorate!), the LDP decimated the DPJ. In 2005, urban voters attracted to Koizumi’s reformist agenda had abandoned the DPJ (strong in urban areas in the 2003 election) and provided for the LDP’s massive landslide. In 2009, urban voters swung hard against the incumbent LDP government and they allowed the DPJ to carry a two-thirds majority. This year, these “floating” voters turned the DPJ’s defeat into a rout.
Therefore, as in 2005 and 2009, the winning party’s victory was magnified by the electoral system (and the heavy weight of FPTP in said system) and resulted in a huge majority in terms of actual seats.
The LDP’s landslide in the single-member seats and in the election overall is largely a reflection of a backlash against the DPJ rather than any upsurge in support for the LDP. Even Shinzō Abe, the new LDP Prime Minister, candidly recognized that his party’s victory was largely the result of anti-DPJ sentiments rather than support for the LDP.
The 2009 election, rather than being a realigning election as most observers initially hailed it as back then, was also a strong anti-incumbent election. In 2009, the DPJ’s landslide reflected the unpopularity and general haplessness (if not, according to many, outright incompetence) of the three successive LDP cabinets following Koizumi’s retirement in 2006. It was not a large electoral realignment as much as a large anti-incumbent swing. The optics of the LDP losing power in a monumental landslide blinded us to this fact in 2009.
The DPJ entered office with high expectations, fueled by its own rhetoric of wrestling power away from senior bureaucrats, breaking the old “iron triangle”, cut down pork-barrel spending, spend more on social services and “revolutionize” the old US-Japan alliance. Like so many Japanese governments in recent years, it did not live up to these expectations and it fell victim to that same vicious cycle which had destroyed Abe, Fukuda and Aso’s cabinets. The game of musical chairs continued, with the DPJ going through three successive Prime Ministers, none of them proving to be charismatic, inspiring popular leaders (like Koizumi was for the LDP).
In the ever-changing and unstable world of modern Japanese politics, the most durable and popular leaders are those who are able to get their message across, market themselves/their parties successfully and present a charismatic image in the medias. However, none of Japan’s last six Prime Ministers (since Koizumi retired in 2006) have fit the bill and their failures at messaging and marketing are part of the explanation for their decline in popularity. The consumption tax, TPP and nuclear energy have been controversial and divisive issues, but in every case the DPJ failed at taking the offensive on the issues, and was placed on the defensive and allowed itself to be outmaneuvered by the LDP or other parties and groups on those issues; even if ultimately the LDP had relatively little policy difference with the DPJ on issues such as the consumption tax.
To be sure, however, like the post-Koizumi LDP cabinets between 2006 and 2009, the DPJ cabinets since the 2009 election have also been hurt by other factors. The government’s economic record was mediocre, with Japan still mired in recession, low-growth and deflation. The DPJ also alienated many of its voters and part of its base by waffling and wobbling over the issues, most notably the question of the US military base on Okinawa, nuclear power or the consumption tax (the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto had opposed such a tax increase).
As a result, Japan’s “floating” voters who have swung wildly in the past six years were clearly unhappy with the unpopular DPJ government, and as a result they swung away from the party (rather than towards the LDP, actually) just like they had swung towards it in 2009.
The popular vote (particularly the PR block vote) shows how relatively unimpressive and “underwhelming” the LDP’s actual performance was. The LDP and NKP only minimally improved their share of the vote on the block vote, taking 36.7% together – up only 1.4% on their disastrous 2009 performance. This means that, with the obvious exception of 2009, this is the worst result for the LDP-NKP coalition. The LDP itself won only 27.8% of the list vote, although they did take 43% of the vote in the single-member constituencies.
The LDP’s victory, therefore, was basically entirely the product of the DPJ’s collapse. The DPJ won only 15.5% of the block vote, falling into third place behind the JRP, and only 22.8% of the FPTP vote. In the 2005 disaster, the DPJ had managed to hold 52 single-member seats (they won 113 seats overall, and 31% on the list vote). This year, the DPJ held only a mere 27 single-member seats. It was obliterated on Hokkaido, where the party had been strong, 2005 included. While Noda easily held his own seat in Chiba Prefecture, no less than eight cabinet ministers lost their seats altogether (constituency losers may sometimes survive by being ‘rescued’ on the list vote) including the finance minister (Koriki Jojima) and the chief cabinet secretary (Osamu Fujimura) and the internal affairs minister (Shinji Tarutoko). Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan lost his district seat in Tokyo but was rescued by the block vote.
The JRP performed rather well, placing second with 20.5% on the block vote. The core of its appeal, however, was concentrated in the Kinki region and specifically in Hashimoto’s political base in Osaka Prefecture. The JRP topped the vote in the Kinki block, with 31% of the list vote, and won the most seats (12 out of 19) in Osaka Prefecture. In the Tokyo block, where the party’s leader and outgoing governor Shintarō Ishihara was the top candidate on the list, the JRP won nearly 20% on the list vote. A finer analysis of the JRP’s results, however, shows that most of its gains likely came on the back of disgruntled DPJ voters. In single-member districts without a JRP candidate, the JRP’s list voters more often than not backed a non-LDP (often DPJ) candidate.
The JRP is thrust into a strong and potentially promising position, but one which at the same time can also be fairly dangerous for the party. On the one hand, with the DPJ having fallen into a state of utter disrepair (even worse than in 2005) and with questions about the DPJ’s future as a party being seriously posed, the JRP could profit from a DPJ collapse. But at the same time, the JRP is an unholy alliance of two ambitious and charismatic local political bosses (Hashimoto and Ishihara) who have a similar populist and nationalist political style but who also differ on some policy questions and could come to see their ambitions clash. During the campaign, internal divisions between the “Hashists” and Ishihara’s supporters had already come to light and weakened the party. Furthermore, many of the JRP’s new members are unknown quantities who have not really been vetted by the media and could hide a few skeletons of their own which will come to light later. If the DPJ is able to get its act together and reassemble itself – which is not an unreasonable idea despite its disastrous result (given how Japanese voters are notoriously swingy and given the historical presence of a left-of-centre opposition to the LDP since 1955) – the JRP could see its star fade. On the other hand, if the DPJ does collapse further, the JRP would be in a strong position to build itself on the ruins of the DPJ.
The other success of these elections was Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party, which had already done well in the 2010 upper house elections. The YP gained 10 seats and won 8.8% on the list vote, likely benefiting from its attractively populist platform and relative novelty.
The other major loser of the election, besides the DPJ, was the Tomorrow Party (TPJ), Governor Kada’s party which was basically co-opted by Ichirō Ozawa’s own party and transformed into a vaguely left-wing machine for Ozawa (Kada, for some weird reason, allowed herself and her party to be coopted by Ozawa and banked everything on his damaged goods figure). From a strong bench of 61 members in the old house, most of them from Ozawa’s old DPJ faction which had left the DPJ this summer, the TPJ was crushed and returned only 9 members. Following the election, all but one of the TPJ’s much-reduced caucus proceeded to abandon ship with Ozawa and create a new political faction, which might now rejoin the DPJ (the DPJ’s new leader, Banri Kaeida, is considered closer to Ozawa and was backed by Ozawa’s faction over Noda and others in the 2011 leadership election, placing second in the final ballot).
Ichirō Ozawa, once a strong political strategist and mastermind, badly misread the political situation and his own political future when he left the DPJ this summer. He is no longer the flamboyant and somewhat smug ex-LDP reformist that he was back in 1993, years of hounding by the media and prosecutors over corruption scandals and allegations have destroyed his political capital and turned him into a damaged goods figure. By and large, voters perceived the TPJ’s anti-nuclear (hence quite ‘green’), anti-TPP and anti-consumption tax as mere political expediency by Ozawa and his crowd.
On his own, without a strong political party, Ozawa was crushed. His political career is wrapping to a close. Kaieda may conceivably let Ozawa return to the DPJ, as part of the re-consolidation of the DPJ and the centre-left which seems crucial to the DPJ’s continued existence.
On the left, the JCP and SDP both lost seats. The disorganized SDP, which held one single-member seat (in Okinawa Prefecture) and saved one block seat, has fallen even further down and is now on life support. The JCP lost slightly on the list vote, falling to 6.2%; however, the JCP made significant gains in the single-member vote, where it had won only 4% in the 2009 election, victim of tactical voting by left-wing voters for the DPJ’s district candidates. This year, the absence of tactical voting on the left further weakened the DPJ and allowed the JCP to recoup loses on that front, receiving protest votes from left-wing voters in the FPTP districts.
The PNP, a anti-Koizumi LDP splinter turned into a very close DPJ ally, was obliterated, managing to win only a single district seat (actually a pick up from the LDP which had gained it from the PNP in an October 2012 by-election).
The LDP, like the proverbial phoenix rising from the flames, has reemerged from the 2009 disaster stronger than ever. Shinzō Abe, the new Prime Minister at the helm of a huge lower house supermajority, has a hawkish and nationalist reputation. His first stint in office, between 2006 and 2007, is widely seen as a disaster with ended with his resignation for a stress-related illness. During his term, he squandered most of his initial popularity by needlessly alienating China and South Korea and seemingly focusing on nationalistic rhetoric. He comes into office following a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku island, which the LDP accused Noda’s DPJ of mismanaging and which might have inspired hawkish responses by Japanese voters which benefited the LDP.
Unlike in 2009, when the DPJ’s striking victory was greeted in Japan and abroad with widespread enthusiasm and excitement, little fanfare and no enthusiasm has accompanied the LDP’s return to power this year. Markets reacted favourably to Abe’s victory, but the bad taste left by his short term has worried others. While in opposition, the LDP did not chose to renew itself or find a new, charismatic and inspiring reformist leader (a la Koizumi) and instead stuck with the old guard and its old ways.
However, Abe has stated that his top focus would be the economy and Japan’s deflation problem. He wants to further loosen monetary policy, inject perhaps $120 billion in the economy in the form of public works spending (an LDP specialty) and actively pressure the Bank of Japan to set a hard target for inflation (at 2%) rather than its current loosely defined 1% inflation goal. The public works spending projects and a possible move to curb the central bank’s independence has ruffled feathers and was criticized by the other parties during the campaign. Abe’s finance minister will be another former LDP Prime Minister, Tarō Asō (who also had a hardline and nationalist reputation).
Abe will face conflicting pressure from various groups over economic policy and other hot-button issues such as the TPP. The business lobby strongly supports the TPP and would want Abe and the LDP to further deregulate the economy, but other LDP support bases – including farmers – oppose the TPP and economic deregulation.
The LDP will have to tread carefully between now and next summer, when it faces a first election with upper house elections (the DPJ still holds a bare plurality there). It will likely focus on the economy and lead a moderate course between now and the upper house elections, in the hope of conquering a plurality or majority there too.
While the LDP has returned to power, it is longer the unshakable political beast it was between 1955 and 1993. Japanese voters are no longer loyally drawn to any party, and constantly float between the various parties and since 2006 have proven more than ready to abandon a governing party in droves. If the LDP government(s?) turns out to be similar to the hapless, directionless and hopelessly divided DPJ and LDP governments which have ruled Japan since 2006, it could conceivably collapse back into opposition by the time of the next general election (by 2016).