Tokyo Notes

Election? What Election?

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Tokyo Notes

Election? What Election?

Don’t expect a big turnout for Japan’s upper house election. The World Cup is more interesting.

Following is a guest entry from The Diplomat contributor Takehiko Kambayashi

The media here have predicted the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and its junior coalition partner the People's New Party (PNP) will be hard-pressed to secure the 56 seats they’d need in Sunday's election to win outright control of the Diet’s upper house.

The DPJ and the PNP currently hold 116 seats and 6 seats respectively, and half of the upper chamber's 242 seats are up for grabs this weekend.

Many Japanese showed their anger over decades of economic stagnation and happily voted for change in last August’s lower house poll, which saw the long-serving Liberal Democratic Party booted from power on DPJ pledges to end wasteful spending and use the money instead to ‘rebuild’ people's lives.

Less than a year after that win, though, and Japanese are apparently once again feeling disillusioned with their country’s politics. Yukio Hatoyama’s flip-flopping on the US military presence in Okinawa didn’t help, but it’s unclear whether successor Naoto Kan, who kept his distance from the issue as finance minister and deputy prime minister, will fare any better over the issue.

Kan is, after all, Japan's fifth prime minister in three years. But as mentioned in this blog Sunday, despite enjoying initial approval ratings of about 60 percent after taking office last month, his ratings took a heavy hit after he floated the idea of raising the consumption tax from the current 5 percent in an effort to tackle mounting public debt.

I asked veteran political analyst Minoru Morita what he made of Kan’s claim that he wants to use the money from a consumption tax hike for social services spending, which in turn could stimulate the economy.

Morita described Kan’s argument as ‘quite irrational’ and said the government should instead be focusing all its efforts on overcoming deflation.

‘Japan’s financial problems have become extremely serious because the country has long failed to build up wealth,’ Morita told me. To avoid economic disaster, Japan ‘must focus on how to achieve positive economic growth.’

It’s not all bad news for the DPJ though. As Prof. Akikazu Hashimoto of J.F. Oberlin University Graduate School told me, the DPJ’s woes aren’t necessarily going to translate into gains for the LDP.

Hashimoto said that many long-time LDP supporters who opted for the DPJ last year likely won’t return, despite the failure of the DPJ to demonstrate any kind of ‘political beliefs’. He says this is because unlike political parties in the West, Japan’s two main parties weren’t established based on a unifying political philosophy.

Indeed, Hashimoto said he doesn’t believe a two-party system will take hold in Japan, as such a system ‘isn’t suited to Japan’s politics and national character.’

Asked about likely voter turnout, he said he expected voters—especially those without any particular affiliation to the main parties—to stay away from the polls.

‘Kan's reference to the idea of a tax hike will probably have prompted some unaffiliated voters to punish the DPJ by not going to the polls,’ Hashimoto said. But he said still expected the DPJ to secure more than 50 seats and added he expected Your Party to do well.

Your Party was formed in August after its president,Yoshimi Watanabe, a former financial services and administrative reform minister, bolted from the LDP in January 2009. The party currently holds just one seat in the upper house.

All that said, the big political parties have some extra competition for attention from voters this year. Inspired by Japan’s plucky performance in the World Cup, there’s plenty of interest in the final that takes place Sunday night. It’s a good job the polls will have long closed by the time the match is broadcast.