Japan's Meaningless Election
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Japan's Meaningless Election

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On Sunday, a respectable share of Japan’s 104 million voters will walk to their local elementary schools or public meeting halls to cast their ballots in the country’s House of Councillors election. Yet opinion polls show that with just a day to go, nearly a third of these potential voters have yet to decide who they’ll be voting for.

Such uncertainty so close to an election would be troubling if it reflected a volatile national character or even an array of choices so dispiriting that many voters have difficulty caring. However, the failure of 3 out of 10 Japanese voters to have made up their minds is down to one simple fact—the election has no meaning, or at least its meaning has changed so many times over the past few months and weeks that a reasonable person could well be asking what they’re actually voting for.

Originally, the upper house elections were designed to select a stalwart and cautious body of respectable citizens whose collective action could serve as a brake on the populist gladhanders of the House of Representatives. As the decades passed, and the House of Representatives switched from an unruly democratic arena to an elected aristocracy where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) never lost power, and the sons and daughters of seat holders succeeded their fathers in representing particular districts, the House of Councillors elections transformed into a way of symbolically punishing the ruling party, since the usual means of doing so–taking power–was impossible.

Over the same period, and likely in defence against the punitive aspect of upper house polls, the LDP and to a lesser extent its opponents used the elections to grant certain sectors of the economy direct representation in the government. While in the United States some may joke about a Washington senator being ‘the Senator from Microsoft,’ in Japan’s House of Councillors these affiliations were openly acknowledged. Doctors, dentists, the construction industry, pharmacists, the defence industry, agriculture and forest product producers all had their senators, all of whom would win election solely on the votes of the managers and employees of the particular industries or professional organizations they openly represented.

This traditional balance of forces came undone in the 2007 House of Councillors election. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its allies not only won control of the upper house and thus actual constitutional tools with which they could stymie the ruling party’s actions (the exercise of which earned the DPJ condemnation in the press for engaging in ‘twisted’ legislative behaviour), but the industry and professional organisation senators all failed to win election. Punishment of the LDP upper house model of election had won out.

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