How significant was the LDP’s victory in Japan’s recent general election?

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW, Canberra

The recent lower house election in Japan has been widely heralded as a resounding victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Certainly it was a massive rejection of the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), whose vote tally fell by more than half, from 45 per cent of the total vote in 2009 to 20 per cent this election. In terms of seats won, the DPJ also dropped spectacularly from 308 to only 57, although this merely continued a trend that the party itself had started — 78 of its Diet members were lost through defections over the course of its administration.

The question remains, however: was the 2012 election really such a ringing endorsement of the LDP? Its victory has been called a ‘paradox’ because the LDP won government with fewer votes than it secured in 2009 when it lost power to the DPJ.

On the surface, the LDP appears to have lost support but won government. However, figures can be deceiving. The difference lies in the overall turnout between the two elections. In 2012, voter turnout was 59 per cent, the lowest since the Second World War and 10 percentage points lower than in 2009. In terms of absolute numbers, there were almost 20 million fewer votes cast in 2012 compared to 2009.

The key to the LDP’s victory was that its proportion of votes rose. In most single-member districts, it won a greater percentage of votes than it did in 2009. Similarly, it won 35 per cent of the total number of votes cast in 2012 compared to 33 per cent in 2009. This was certainly a modest increase compared with the overall landslide outcome in the election (largely due to the distortionary effect of the first-past-the-post electoral system), but according to this measure, the LDP did better in 2012 than in 2009.

However, the size of the LDP’s victory was still due more to the collapse in support for the DPJ rather than any major surge in support for the LDP. The 2012 election was a resounding repudiation of the DPJ experiment. In some electorates, the party received only a quarter or third of the number of votes they won in 2009. In fact, the DPJ lost votes in every single electorate except for former prime minister Noda’s in Chiba District Four where they rose by more than 1000. In some constituencies, DPJ candidates slipped to third or even fourth on the list of vote-getters, with percentages as low as 9 per cent of the total vote, behind parties such as the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) and the Tomorrow Party of Japan.

With an electoral performance such as this, can the DPJ remain a major, alternative governing party? Much will depend on whether the DPJ has a large enough base of support from which to launch an eventual return to power. The alternative is that the DPJ will end up as one of the smaller players in an LDP-dominated system, which would mean a reversion to Japan’s political norm.

Certainly, in the short term, the prospects of Japan becoming a two-party system seem unlikely. Although the LDP changed places with the DPJ in the top spot in most constituencies, this does not mean Japan’s two-party system has become more consolidated.

There is little short-term possibility of an alternative, effective government emerging in opposition to the LDP. Moreover, the new main divide in Japanese politics could now fall between the centre-right (the LDP core) and the ‘new’ right led by JRP nationalists, such as Shintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto, and by the economic neo-liberals in Your Party, with the left and centre-left remaining splintered into several weak parties. Where the DPJ fits into this picture is difficult to gauge because its party policy identity has been so muddled by its period in government.

Much will depend on the level of cooperation and/or collaboration between the LDP and the JRP, which, although principally an Osaka phenomenon in terms of local district seats won, has stormed into the Diet as the real ‘third force’ to be reckoned with. However, it will need to complete the transition from a regional to a truly national party in terms of electoral performance for its political potential truly to be realised.

The New Komeito, formally in coalition with the LDP, will remain the principal brake within government on the more radical right-wing agenda of the prime minister and elements of the LDP. However, the opposition brake on issues such as constitutional reform led by the old left — the Social Democratic and Communist parties — has been significantly weakened by this election.

The election has also altered the representative character of the LDP in terms of different types of district. While the LDP restored its position as the dominant party in both rural and semi-rural districts, it performed almost as well in semi-urban, urban and metropolitan constituencies, showing that the surge in its rural and semi-rural support was part of a general trend across all seat types. The significance of this result is that the LDP has now become a more balanced party in terms of its orientation on the rural–urban electoral spectrum. This development will reduce the extent of the LDP’s dependence on rural and semi-rural voters, with only 42 per cent of its total seats won from rural and semi-rural districts and a majority (58 per cent) from more urbanised electorates.

At the same time, we are witnessing a changing of the political guard. Japan is undergoing a process of party realignment in slow motion but Ichiro Ozawa is no longer the major catalyst for this process as he was in the past. This role is now falling to Hashimoto. The electorate dealt particularly harshly with the Ozawa-led, ex-DPJ saboteurs, who were effectively wiped out in the election, as were his two key lieutenants, Kenji Yamaoka and Shozo Azuma. Ozawa is now a samurai without his followers, traditionally the main instrument of his power.

The next big test will be the July 2013 upper house election. Although the JRP needs to strengthen its numbers in the Diet, Hashimoto can hardly expand his power base to the upper house given that he has recommended that it be abolished.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.