Features | Politics | East Asia

Japan’s Meaningless Election

The DPJ’s triumph last year was meant to mean a bright new future. A year later, Japanese don’t know what they’re voting for.

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.

The DPJ’s crushing of the LDP in the House of Representatives election and takeover of the government last year completed the task started by the LDP’s upper house defeat. However with this victory and the change in government, the main remaining purpose of Sunday’s House of Councillors election–the scourging of the LDP–also disappeared. The DPJ and its allies were in control of both Houses of the Diet, at the expressed wish of the voters. There was no one left to punish.
As soon as last year’s poll was over, a bewildering process began to find a new intellectual purpose for the 2010 upper house election (senators are elected to fixed terms of six years, with half the house coming up for election every three years).

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In the first rush of excitement after the fall of the LDP, this year’s poll loomed in the imagination as the LDP’s Armageddon. The 2009 elections had merely stripped the LDP of its power; the 2010 elections were going to drive the LDP to extinction, as a vastly more popular DPJ simply wiped the LDP off the electoral map.

In anticipation of this, two processes were set into motion. Independents in the House of Councillors, who had lived in the comfortable middle ground between the LDP and the DPJ, applied to join the DPJ, further increasing its control. Second, members of the LDP in both houses, including the party’s most prominent and telegenic members, began to fight open battles for leadership of the LDP. Frustrated and convinced the LDP was headed for oblivion, luminaries like Kaoru Yosano and Yoichi Masuzoe bolted from the LDP to start their own parties.

But just as quickly as the annihilation of the LDP became the dominant narrative of the 2010 elections, the political finance scandals and diffident leadership of the DPJ’s ruling duo–Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa–began creating a counter-narrative. As revelations of shady accounting and arrests of the duo’s associates began to dominate political news, the story of this year’s election became less one of a certain LDP defeat as a race between the prosecutors chasing after Hatoyama and Ozawa. It also became about the ability of Ozawa, the great political operator of the last 20 years, to cobble together a coalition of interests–the post office and its employees, the trucking industry, farmers, the Japan Medical Association–that looked exactly like the coalitions the LDP had used to cling to power. The popularity of both the Cabinet and the DPJ, meanwhile, declined significantly.

So Sunday’s election was going to be a referendum on Hatoyama and Ozawa’s politics and personal problems–until both men suddenly resigned from their positions on June 2. A new prime minister, the level-headed, plain-spoken, common man Naoto Kan, was elected the new leader of the DPJ. In spirit, the quick-tempered Kan is nearly the opposite of his wealthy, vacillating and whimsical predecessor Hatoyama, and in policy direction, the nearly exact opposite of the profligate Ozawa. Ozawa, the supposed dark lord of Japanese politics, was dramatically driven offstage and told by Kan to keep quiet for the sake of the country, the party and his own good.

The people erupted in joy at the fall of Hatoyama and Ozawa; the popularity of the DPJ and the Cabinet rebounded. The House of Councillors poll was going to see the coronation of Kan and the celebration of the return of core, pre-Ozawa DPJ values of fiscal restraint and the rejection of pandering to a web of interest groups. It was also to be a celebration of the arrival of the politics of reality, of limits and tradeoffs spelled out in stark detail, contrary to the vaporous wishful thinking out loud of Hatoyama and the impossible-to-keep promises of Ozawa. The new DPJ leadership called the election early, with piles of Diet bills left to gather dust or to die, in order to capitalize on the people’s jubilation.

Except, of course, that rather than resting on his laurels, Kan introduced an idea that had been drilled into his head by both the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance and the European crisis over Greece: that the government of Japan was a debt-ridden house of cards in dire need of bolstering–and that the primary means of putting Japan’s financial house in order was a hike in the consumption tax. Kan then jetted off to the G20 meetings, leaving his idea to be picked over by his enemies in his absence.

Kan thought he had bought political cover for the idea of a tax rise with references to the Greek crisis and the manifesto of the LDP, which stated that the at least according to the LDP the consumption tax had to rise to 10 percent. However, Kan’s enemies pounced on the consumption tax, first as an example of his lack of understanding of economics (imposition of a tax hike is likely to severely impact economic growth, which Japan desperately needs) and of the DPJ’s fundamental duplicity–its 2009 manifesto having promised that the party would not raise the consumption tax before the next House of Representative election, which is forecast for 2013.

So began yet another election narrative–that the voters had to vote against the DPJ in order to send it the message that they hate being taken for fools–and that they hate tax hikes, even when more than 60 percent of the populace believes the consumption tax hike to 10 percent inevitable. Unmistakable are the echoes of the traditional model of using the upper election as a means of punishing the arrogant, overbearing ruling party, even though the ruling party in this instance is the DPJ, which has been in power less than a year.

And not content with this, in the past few days the media and the parties have attempted to gin up another view of the election: that it’s all about policies. This development is largely a consequence of trying to justify the profusion of micro-parties, mostly of the right of the political spectrum, which are fighting to differentiate themselves from the two major parties in some way.

Under the D’Hondt proportional election system, which favours larger parties, and with the 73 district seats set to go to the DPJ or the LDP almost in their entirety, several of the micro-parties are in danger of winning no seats at all. The parties and the media have collaborated in a desperate attempt to outline their differences from one another. However, with the abbreviated election season of only three weeks, there’s been no easy way of introducing or explaining policies, even for the major parties, as Kan found out to his party’s detriment on the consumption tax.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a sizable minority of the electorate still remains undecided. If they aren’t sure what this election is really about, they have a multitude of story lines from which to draw their conclusions.

There is, of course, a more fundamental reason why many voters are confused and unable to make a choice, even on the eve of a historic first election under a non-LDP government–and that is the lack of a clear national purpose. Japanese voters are highly educated, law-abiding (for the most part) and eager participants in their own democracy. Ask most of them what Japan’s national goals are, however, and you’ll draw an embarrassed silence, or some dangerous platitude like ‘to live at peace with other countries.’

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Without goals or aims, it’s extremely difficult to choose which path to take. Or, in this case, which party or person you want to vote for.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the MIT Center for International Studies and an independent political consultant. He is based in Tokyo.