One of the many imponderables of the recent Japanese general election is which party got the vote of farmers. The LDP won 45 out of 59 rural single-member district (SMD) seats (76 percent) with Independents and the DPJ winning five each, the Party for Future Generations two and the People’s Life Party and Japan Innovation Party (JIP) one each.
These results are far from a clean sweep for the LDP, suggesting that farmers and rural dwellers were open to the option of supporting non-LDP candidates – only marginally less so than in more urbanized electorates where the LDP won 71 percent and 69 percent of urban and metropolitan seats, respectively. In fact, more Independents won rural seats than in any other district type, while the DPJ won the same number of rural seats as metropolitan seats. In semi-rural districts, the LDP did better, gaining 85 percent of seats.
If commentary in the Nihon Nogyo Shinbun (Japan Agriculture Newspaper) is any guide, Japan’s farmers had mixed feelings about the LDP because of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agricultural policies over the past two years, which enjoyed less than their full support.
The newspaper conducted an exit poll of its readers who are mainly farmers, in which 55 percent of those surveyed said that they had voted for LDP candidates, which was one percentage point higher than in the 2012 Lower House election. In the proportional representation (PR) districts, however, only 43 percent responded that they had voted for the LDP, which was five percentage points higher than in the 2012 election but 12 percentage points lower than in the PR district in the 2013 Upper House election. The conclusion drawn by the newspaper was that compared with the SMDs, where the choice of candidates was limited, support for the LDP in PR districts was far from robust. In fact, 22 percent and 23 percent of respondents claimed to have voted for the DPJ in the SMDs and PR districts respectively, an increase on the 2012 election, suggesting that the DPJ is slowly recovering its position as an option for farm voters.
Other destinations for farmers’ votes in the PR districts included the Japan Communist Party (JCP) (11 percent), Komeito (7 percent) and JIP (6 percent), a rise for the JCP and a decline for the Komeito and JIP (Japan Restoration Party in the previous election). Given that support for the JCP increased by four percentage points compared with the 2013 UH election PR district, the party would appear to have strengthened its position as a recipient of protest votes from rural voters.
During the campaign, farmers complained about the lack of serious debate about agricultural policy, including the TPP negotiations and agricultural cooperative (JA) reform, both regarded as encompassed by Abe’s growth strategy. Some openly voiced their dissatisfaction with the fact that agricultural policy was not a key issue in the election. One full-time farmer in Fukuoka said, for example, “It is disappointing that agricultural issues were not debated in the election campaign. I want [the government] to show us agriculture’s future prospects.”
When the prime minister (and DPJ leader Kaieda Banri) visited rural areas, they avoided issues such as the TPP, JA reform, and regional revitalization, which were of specific concern to many farmers and to JA as well as to rural dwellers more widely. Abe kept the focus very much on Abenomics and treated the election as if it were a referendum on his key economic strategy.
The Nihon Nogyo Shinbun observed that it was difficult to conclude that many farmers completely supported what the newspaper described as the Abe administration’s “Kantei-led” agricultural and rural policies. In fact, two political rather than policy-related factors were regarded as having worked in the LDP’s favor: the opposition parties’ lack of preparation for the election, which meant that in many constituencies, opposition parties other than the JCP were unable to field candidates, and the low voter turnout.
The reality is that many farmers do not trust the Abe government on the TPP, given that it is the centerpiece of Abenomics, expecting some form of trade agreement to be signed in the first half of 2015. At best, they are hoping that it will be yet another agreement in the tradition of “free trade without agricultural trade liberalization”; at worst, they expect the administration to sacrifice the interests of internationally uncompetitive domestic producers to achieve a final deal after nearly two years of negotiations.
Within the LDP itself, the balance of urban and rural interests has shifted relatively speaking. For decades, the party’s support base was skewed towards the rural end of the electoral spectrum, but since the 2012 election, the LDP has become a relatively well-balanced party – with 43 percent of its SMD seats won in rural (20 percent) and semi-rural electorates (23 percent), and the balance from semi-urban (20 percent), urban (19 percent) and metropolitan electorates (18 percent). As for Abenomics, it is essentially a policy designed to appeal to urban rather than rural voters.
Moreover, the fact that 25 percent of rural SMD seats were won by non-LDP candidates in the 2014 election suggests that farmers and rural dwellers are no longer wedded to the LDP in the way that they were in previous decades. This is despite the fact that 89 percent of the electoral recommendations of the farmers’ political leagues (JA’s political organizations in the prefectures) went to LDP candidates on the grounds that JA needed representation within the ruling party, which would decide crucial agricultural policy issues.
However, many of these candidates spoke with a “forked tongue,” offering reassurances to farm voters on the TPP but supporting the prime minister’s official policy line of actively pursuing a deal. It was also clear that across the party, LDP candidates differed in their opinions on the TPP and agricultural reform issues, but muted their differences during the campaign. Some supported the entire spectrum of Abenomics policies while others were opposed to some elements – but both had to maintain the semblance of a united front. Farm voters were put in the position of trying to pick out which of the opinions within the party they supported.
To some extent, policy flexibility on the TPP was made easy by the wording of the LDP’s campaign pledge: “We will seek the best path that is in the national interest,” allowing the government to define “national interest” to suit any particular policy position, including a decision to sign on to the agreement. The DPJ also referred to “securing national interests” while promising to withdraw from the negotiations if necessary in its campaign manifesto – again covering all possible policy options and again making it difficult for farm voters to choose between the two parties. In the final analysis, it would come down to a question of how “the national interest” was defined – inherently a subjective exercise.