Japanese Elections: “Least-hated” rather than Popularity Contests

A lot of Japanese opinion polls tend to be of limited analytical value – either the questions are too general, too focused on “political” rather than policy issues, or are simply obscure and give no indication about priorities. However, the Asahi Shimbun has released (日) a poll a few days after the election that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Sunday’s election and what the public was thinking.

It is certain that LDP President Abe Shinzo will become the prime minister. Do you have expectations of Abe?

    Have 51%

 Don’t have 42%

This is actually quite low. It probably relates to Abe having already been PM. It is probably going to get lower if he appoints former PM Aso to the foreign minister position as is being rumoured- Aso’s perceived incompetence is one that only rivals Hatoyama, and in any respect such an appointment will raise the spectre of “Tomodachi Naikaku 2.0″ as Aso served as Abe’s FM first time around.

Together the LDP and Komeito have a super-majority of 325. Is this a good thing?

 Good thing 35%

 Not good 43%

Well…that is unfortunate isn’t it people…

In the last election we have returned to an LDP-centred government. Is this a good thing?

    Good 57%

 Not good 16%

So people wanted to get rid of the DPJ, but only vaguely wanted the LDP in, and certainly didn’t want them to have too much power…

Do you think the reason that the LDP was able to do so well was because the public supported its policies or because of disappointment realting to DPJ’s time in government?

 LDP policies 7%

 DPJ disappointment 81%

Wow. We already knew this, but this is about as decisive a result as you will see from the Japanese electorate on any issue. So very, very damning for both the LDP and the DPJ.

In the election the DPJ lost many seats and fell back into opposition. Do you want the DPJ to rejuvenate as a rival party to the LDP?

 Yes 53%

 No 38%

This is more than I would have expected. Maybe the two party system shouldn’t be written off just yet?

The JRP increased its parliamentary presence from 11 seats to 54 seats. Do you think this was a good outcome?

Good 56%

Not good 22%

This really suggests that the JRP is leaving a lot of “points on the field” so to speak. Consistently about half of the public before the election wanted to see the JRP have more influence. But relatively few could bring themselves to vote for them. Clearly Ishihara is part of that, but Hashimoto himself really needs to focus on the key issues that make him fleetingly popular.

The election resulted in the lowest postwar voting turnout. Why do you think this is so?

 No issues of interest to me 6%

 No party or candidates I wanted to vote for 29%

 Even if I vote nothing is going to change 51%

    The timing was inconvenient 8%

My interpretation: 80% alienation, and only 14% laziness.

What policy issues were of the most concern to you in the election?

 Economy and employment 35%

 Consumption tax and social security 30%

 Constitutional revision, diplomacy and security 12%

 Nuclear and energy issues 17%

S0 82% concerned with domestic issues – only 12% at most were interested in the “rightward” agenda of the LDP and JRP. No wonder the public was disappointed. We got a bit of talk on the economy, but most of the debate was taken up by foreign policy issues [not an issue for me personally of course] and pointless bickering regarding whose uninspiring energy/nuclear plan was more or less realistic.

In recent elections there has been a trend of parties gaining and losing significant amounts of seats. Do you think such large reversals are a good thing?

 Yes 27%

 No 57%

Interestingly, LDP SecGen Ishiba Shigeru has come out and suggested that the government look at this very issue in the context of electoral reform. But then again, Ishiba is known to speak sense from time to time.

Pendulum Districts 2012

From Asahi Shimbun

From Asahi Shimbun

According to the Asahi Shimbun (日), 145 SMDs went for the LDP/Komeito in 2005, DPJ in 2009, and then again for the LDP/Komeito in 2012 (what the Asahi terms the “pendulum phenomenon”). 71 one of them were in the urban metropolis of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama area. This is a very interesting bit of information that could prove useful for the next lower house general election if it is held under a similar system to the current one. If the LDP-Komeito relationship survives the Abe tenure, however long that may be, then in the next election there will be significant incentives for the JRP, a new centrist DPJ, and perhaps the YP to form alliances in these districts, particularly if the LDP disappoints in some way.

And Just How Bad Was it for the DPJ?

Bad. Actually, very, very bad. While the DPJ managed to just pip the Japan Restoration Party for second place with 57 seats (down from 308), the “third pole” parties still did overall quite well with the JRP getting 54 and Your Party getting 18, for a total of 72.

Thus we have the governing parties of the LDP (294) and Komeito (31) with 325 seats, the “centrist” DPJ with 57 seats, the “third pole” with 72 seats, and the “left,” collectively made up of the Japan Future Party (9), the Social Democratic Party (2), the Communist Party (8), and New Party Daichi (1) with 20 seats. Perhaps most telling is the number of current  (7) and former members of DPJ cabinets (10) that lost not only their SMD seats but did not even make it back into the Diet on the PR list (17 in total!). That said, whether it be Okada, Hosono, Edano or Maehara who takes over, many of these people will not be missed by them as they rebuild the party, if that is even possible.

 Current ministers in the Noda cabinet:

Mitsui Wakio, Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare

Kodaira Tadamasa, Consumer Affairs

Jojima Koriki, Finance

Nakatsuka Ikko, Financial Services

Tanaka Makiko, Education

Fujimura Osamu, Chief Cabinet Secretary

Tarutoko Shinji, Internal Affairs

It cannot be often that both the sitting finance minister and chief cabinet secretary, considered to be two of the top four jobs in the cabinet, lose their jobs outright.

Previous Ministers:

Hachiro Yoshio, METI (Mr “I’ll give you radiation”)

Kano Michihiko, Agriculture (anti-TPP ringleader and thorn in both Kan and Noda’s side)

Hosokawa Ritsuo, Health, Labour and Welfare

Tanaka Keishuu, Justice (Quit after connections to the Yakuza were revealed)

Komiyama Yoko, HLW

Kawabata Tatsuo, Internal Affairs

Hirano Hirofumi, Chief Cabinet Secretary (Hatoyama cabinet – widely considered to be incompetent)

Hiraoka Hideo, Justice (appointed someone with a criminal record to be his secretary)

Sengoku Yoshito, Chief Cabinet Secretary (Accused of sexual harassment, responsible for the Senkaku debacle by pressuring prosecutors to release the captain, etc)

Matsumoto Ryu, Environment (Abused two Tohoku governors after the tsunami, threatened a journalist, then blamed it on his Kyushu background and his blood type)

Not too many of the people from the second list will be missed.

Notable DPJ members who were “revived” on the PR list after losing their SMD seats include former PM Naoto Kan and Noda’s DPJ leadership run-off rival Kaieda Banri.

Just How Convincing was the LDP’s Victory?

Very – but actually, not at all.

Some basic numbers.

Bear in mind that the DPJ received 308 seats in 2009, and received 42% support in the proportional representation component of the vote. In 2009 the LDP overall received 26. 7% of the PR vote and received 119 seats. The nation-wide PR vote average for the LDP this year is likely to be around 28% (update: confirmed at 27.6%), and the LDP will receive 294 seats in total.

It gets worse. As can be seen in the numbers for the 5 largest PR districts below (those that are significantly disadvantaged by the vote-value disparity in the SMD component of the vote), the LDP did only slightly better in this election than it did in the previous election. While there are certainly more parties competing for the party PR vote this time around, this nevertheless paints a bleak picture of the fairness of the current system when a party can claim an electoral mandate on the basis of little more than a quarter of the voting public seeing the party as their number one choice. The other thing to factor into this equation is that this election had one of the poorest post-war turnouts on record. Only 59% of the voting public turned out for this election, a significant 10 percent drop from 2009 (and 10 million people). In reality, the LDP received less actual PR votes, and in many districts did not do that much better in terms of actual SMD votes received compared to 2009’s decisive rejection of the LDP.

Tokyo PR 

LDP 2012: 24.9%

LDP 2009: 25.5%

DPJ 2009: 41.0%

Northern Kanto PR

LDP 2012: 28.1%

LDP 2009: 25.8%

DPJ 2009: 42.1%

Southern Kanto PR

LDP 2012: 26.4%

LDP 2009: 26.0%

DPJ 2009: 43.0%

Kinki PR

LDP 2012: 23.9%

LDP 2009: 23.2%

DPJ 2009: 42.4%

Kyushu PR

LDP 2012: 29.9%

LDP 2009: 28.1%

DPJ 2009: 38.1%

Michael Cucek states in a recent East Asia Forum article titled “Japan’s Nothing Election”:

“The Japanese electorate has been confronted with a nothing election: an election called for no reason, lacking attractive candidates or even fundamental legitimacy.”

It’s hard to disagree – but as seen above, it is even worse than that.

The LDP and Issue Avoidance

Michael Cucek, while agreeing with the general thrust of my previous post on the changing electoral composition in Japan, questions whether my suggestion is likely to implemented in reality. To be sure, the likelihood of anyone seeing sense as I described it is indeed small. Nevertheless, I think pointing out that when the Diet reconvenes early next year, taking an axe to the PR component of the current electoral system will be the exact wrong strategy for all parties except for the LDP, has some merit. One can only hope that the DPJ in particular realizes this, as ultimately Abe’s promise to undertake a fuller reform of the House of Representatives was made to the DPJ and it is up to them to make the running on this issue.

If the opposition parties collectively were more focused, then they could well force more out of the LDP than MTC lets on, however. If (that word again) Abe is smart he will spend the first regular Diet session of next year focusing on economic issues and avoiding any moves on the more controversial issues such as changing the constitution or the interpretation of the right to collective self-defense. Abe needs to build political capital before he can spend it. The issue of timing regarding pushing forward on constitutional reform is ultimately in Abe’s hands. The goal should be to make it to the House of Councillors elections with as little drama as possible and again use the House of Councillors electoral math to put the LDP in a strong position to take back the house as the uninspiring default option.

Two issues that will likely need to be progressed one way or another in the next Diet session are the electoral reform bill as promised to the DPJ, and a final decision on the TPP. A decision on the TPP will not wait much longer. First, the general perception in Washington according to one high-level proponent of the TPP in a conservative DC thinktank I spoke to last week is that the TPP will live or die in 2013 one way or another, in contrast to the RCEP, which will be slower but more “sustainable” in terms of the process. This seems like a reasonable insight. Another reason why Abe will be faced with a decision is that expectations are high in Washington itself that Abe will actually bring the Japanese electorate around and, in the words of the aforementioned thinktanker (not Michael Green), “betray the people” if need be in order to bolster the US-Japan alliance (that said, the public has been for some time somewhat in favour of joining the TPP).  There is a small chance Abe may be able to put off a decision until immediately after the House of Councillors election, where the vote disparity is almost 5:1 in favour of rural districts, but the window will be very small. This kind of thinking is probably optimistic on the part of DC crowd, but on the other hand I would not rule it out.

How Abe will deal with his promise to the DPJ will depend on how aware of its own viability the DPJ is in terms of its long-term prospects for political influence. The only hard and fast rule of the promise to Noda is that there needs to be a reduction in the number of Diet members in the Lower House. The issue of how they are elected was not directly touched upon although the DPJ could argue that as they included it in the bill that was rejected when Noda extracted the promise from Abe, then Abe implicitly promised to consider this issue as well. If the LDP takes not much more than 30 percent of the total PR vote, and wins as resoundingly as many are expecting in terms of actual seats gained – all on the back of an unconstitutional election which treats large swathes of the electorate as less than half a citizen – then the opposition parties will be more than justified making a lot of noise about how the HoR not only needs to be reduced, but also needs to be dramatically reformed. MTC may be right in pointing out that the LDP will be extremely hostile to any changes to the electoral system, but on the other hand, will it be the price for political peace in the lead up into the House of Councillors election? The opposition parties if they were smart, should make it so. Where I agree with MTC is that the DPJ probably has little awareness about what its actual interests are. Much like on September 16, 2009.

This could ultimately be all up to Abe. Will he learn the correct lesson from his first time in power, and for that matter from Hatoyama and from Kan’s strategic blunders in terms of issue selection, and choose the right issues to address first?

Is it Time to Start Thinking about 2013?

As was predicted here around the time of the dissolution of the Diet the mechanics of the current Japanese political system makes it likely that the LDP-Komeito coalition, if not the LDP on its own, will get a majority on December 16th. At the official start of the election season on December 4th most of the mainstream media outlets have started to predict this very outcome This is despite the LDP’s support rate under Abe being less than stellar, and there being almost no enthusiasm for the party. This seems to have been a (what should have been obvious) stimulus to the likes of the JRP who will now look to turn their undivided attention to attacking the LDP. JRP 2IC Osaka Governor Matsui has even come out groveling to Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi, saying (日) that he and Hashimoto were in hindsight “too cheeky” and insufficiently respectful of “Watanabe-Sempai’s (political) life experience.” With the LDP the default option, uninspiring to many as it is, nothing short of some grand gesture/announcement by the two “third pole” parties is going to change the the narrative and outcome of this particular election. It is possible that they may turn around what looks to be a fait accompli, just unlikely at this point in time. This is because it is unfortunately too late to offload Ishihara and the other retro-conservatives of the Taiyo no Tou, and make a play for Your Party amalgamation. With the LDP lurking at around 20-25 percent in the PR vote, it does not have to do much better in the SMDs, if at all, than it did in the last disastrous election for the LDP, to acquire a majority this time around, given the rest of the vote will be split in the SMDs between the JRP/YP, the DPJ, and the Japan Future Party (JFP). This will look like a comprehensive victory, but the deeper numbers, as we will all know, will suggest anything but a mandate.

Which raises some interesting questions about the Japanese political system going forward. There has been discussion about the current configuration, of the “conservative” LDP, the “whatever-you-personally-want-to-label-them” JRP, the centrist DPJ, and the “liberal” JFP, being representative of the true realignment of Japanese politics, as opposed to a seemingly “forced” two party British/Westminster system. I had this discussion with good friend Bryce Wakefield recently; and friend of Sigma1, Michael Penn at Shingetsu News Agency, has recently put forward the same hypothesis in last week’s subscription-only “Tokyo Diplomat.” [So credit goes to them].

Given the complexity of the Japanese political system and the difficulty in identifying what we Westerners tend to perceive as “left” and “right” in the Japanese ideological spectrum, then this seems a pretty solid hypothesis. We may have to give up on a two-party system – and that might be ok. As long as the parties themselves are somewhat internally coherent (not quite there yet of course) then having more than two (incoherent) parties may not be a bad thing.

If this is the case, then Japan clearly has the wrong political system. If as is predicted the LDP does go on to win quite convincingly on the back of 20 percent support in the Proportional Representation system (ie their “true” support level) then something is quite clearly wrong. First-Past-the-Post systems limit political representation for the benefit of simplifying the political system and promoting stable, but still democratic, governance. However, this is more for systems where two major political parties fiercely compete but are likely to fall a bit short of getting 50 percent of the vote from time to time on their own. However, not this short. 20 and even 30 percent “true” support translating into perhaps 60 percent of the number of seats seems absurd. It clearly undermines too much the “popular democracy” component of the democracy-governance trade-off of FPP systems (notwithstanding the PR component of the current Japanese system). Throw in the fact that rural votes are worth two times as much as urban votes (not to mention this being unconstitutional), then it becomes an absolute farce.

This is not to say that a return to the Multiple Member Districts (MMD) of old is desirable. That would be a step backwards. It does raise questions regarding Noda and Abe’s plan/promise to cut the number of seats during the 2013 regular Diet session, however. When you have four parties which all deserve some kind of voice, why cut the PR seats? Especially when they are the only part of the system that gives certain citizens an “equal value” vote. Cutting the seats to save on waste is noble enough, but doing so in a way that might enshrine permanent but unpopular LDP-Komeito rule in the medium-term will be undesirable, even for the DPJ. The DPJ is unlikely to ever again win the way it did in 2009. It may be able to gain in the 2013 House of Councillors election, but it will not be much. The truth is, the DPJ is not the “2nd party” that they think they are in a Westminster-style system. Neither will the JRP be. When we all come back next year and Abe is forced to consider his promise to undertake reform of the House of Representatives, reducing the PR seats will be exactly the wrong thing to do, unless there is some kind of realignment into two blocs.

At the risk of sounding parochial, there is of course a solution, one that may only have a six month window open for consideration if the LDP is mildly successful at governing.

It produces good, stable cabinet-focused governance based on coalition governments, and pretty good representation across the spectrum while still incentivizing centrist policy-making. It is not that different from the current Japanese system in that it has both FPP elements and PR elements. And if a party is genuinely popular then it doesn’t prevent them from claiming a mandate for reform.

Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP).* It’s perfect for a natural four (or three) party system with a Westminster heritage. And, citizens are all enfranchised as both their party and their electorate vote are valued the same as anywhere else in the nation. Imagine that.

* With all of the necessary tweaks needed to make it work in Japan.

LDP Support Takes a (Mini) Dive

The Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers’ opinion polls released this morning would seem to portend bad news for Abe Shinzo and the LDP. According to the Yomiuri poll (日) in the last week LDP’s PR vote support has dived from 25 percent to 19 percent which is more than just a sample error. The DPJ and Your Party have been the beneficiary of this, increasing slightly from 10 percent to 13 percent (DPJ) and from 2 percent to 5 percent (YP) respectively. The new “Mirai no Tou” or “Future Party” makes a minor dent at 5 percent which will only bring back about 10-15 of their current 60 odd MPs at best. The JRP vote is holding constant but does indeed seem to have peaked at 13 percent.

The Asahi poll (日) shows some similarities. LDP support is down from 23 to 20 percent, and the DPJ is up from 13 percent to 15 percent. Again the JRP is holding constant at around 9 percent in this poll (10 percent previously). The poll also reveals a lack of expectation for the Mirai no Tou and Ozawa’s involvement in particular.

To be sure this is an interesting development. Abe’s perceived flip-flopping on the BOJ issue and the attack from all sides, including the LDP’s New Komeito partner, on issues relating to defense such as the collective self-defense and changes to Article 9 regarding the SDF name and its legal constitutional basis, are likely to been a factor in this decline.*

It is too early to predict a change in the outcome of the election, however. The Yomiuri poll shows that while the PR vote for the LDP is less than impressive, the LDP is likely still to do better in the SMDs. 22 percent of people will vote for the LDP in their SMD (down from 27 percent to be sure), 13 percent for the DPJ (up from 9 percent), and 12 percent for the JRP (down from 14 percent). Of course that is less than 50 percent of the vote, but it (superficially) shows how the split in the non-LDP vote might just put the LDP ahead in many of the 300 First-Past-the-Post SMDs, which are already tilted in the LDPs favour due to the vote-value disparity amplifying the voice of rural areas. Furthermore, unless the DPJ (3 years of troubled rule)** and the JRP (bickering with Your Party, and now seemingly internally between the Ishihara and Hashimoto factions over the nuclear issue)*** can relieve themselves of the political media burdens that they are currently carrying, then much of the remainder of that 40 to 50 percent undecided vote will probably default to the LDP.**** In fact, this should be the LDP’s general strategy – the default party. In this sense Abe, with his various visions, might well turn out to be the wrong guy for this kind of strategy.

* The Asahi poll also reveals some opposition to Abe’s proposal to change the SDF’s name to that of “National Defense Military” (国防軍). 51 percent are against and only 26 percent are in favour. The rightward shift is palpable! Technically this name change would be rendered as “National Defense Force” in English but the name change is more significant in Japanese due to the presence of the 軍 character, hence my translation. The Asahi poll indicates that candidate/party positions on Article 9 are important in the final voting decision for 68 percent of respondents.

** Are the North Koreans going to influence this election by giving a helping hand to Noda by launching a missile right before the election? A solid performance by Noda might reinforce the narrative that, while not a popular or attractive candidate, he is a steady hand on foreign policy, unlike his “weak” DPJ predecessors or his potential “Hawkish” LDP replacement in Abe. Of course, on the other hand, any scent of mismanagement in the response will have quite the opposite effect.

*** Why is the JRP even talking about the nuclear power issue (or for that matter weapons)? It is not going to win them any votes either which way because those who are concerned with nuclear power issues were not voting for them anyway. The discussion only highlights internal disagreement on the issue, something that exists along the political spectrum. As long as they don’t take an obviously pro-nuclear power, or immediate, “Nuclear Zero” position to close down the reactors then discussion over this is a distraction from what should be a relentless and single-minded emphasis on administrative reform and decentralization.

****Still no good polls from swing SMD blocs or a general regional bloc-by-bloc breakdown of the PR vote thus making more specific conclusions inappropriate. The Kyodo poll from the same time period shows that there has been virtually no change in the last week. 18 percent for the LDP, 10 percent for JRP, and 9 percent for the DPJ. They show about 3.5 percent for the Mirai no Tou.