Low turnout in Japan a cause for worry

By Kwan Weng Kin ,The Straits Times Publication/Asia News Network

There was no sense of excitement even among the winners when the two-party coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in the recent general election. Instead, experts were perturbed to see the voter turnout plunge to a record low of 52.66 percent, almost seven points below the previous record set in 2012. For a long time, it had been the accepted notion in Japan that a low voter turnout favored the LDP. A low turnout meant unaffiliated voters, who were said to tend to support the opposition, would have less influence on the result. More importantly, it meant that bloc votes mobilized by the LDP would play a key role in determining the final outcome. Just five days before the 2000 general election, then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori voiced what was no doubt on the minds of his LDP colleagues, saying ��it was fine�� if unaffiliated voters slept in and did not go to cast their ballots. The turnout in that election was a respectable 62.49 percent. In the 2009 elections, when the LDP was trounced, 69.28 percent of voters cast their ballots, confirming that a high turnout was indeed harmful to the party. In 2012, when the turnout dropped to 59.32 percent, the LDP came back to power. It is said that Abe had deliberately aimed for a low voter turnout in the recent election. He picked a wintry December Sunday for the polls, when large parts of the country could be under snow, making it difficult for voters to get to polling stations. His party had demanded in writing that television networks conduct ��fair reporting�� of the election. The veiled threat led to a reduction in election coverage and journalists shied away from asking Abe pointed questions during the campaign period. Still, the LDP, while triumphant, was sobered by the low turnout. The declining voter turnout could have long-term implications for Japan. For one thing, despite the 325 seats won by the LDP and its junior partner Komeito in the 475-seat Lower House, can Abe really claim to represent the voice of the people? Polls data shows that slightly less than half of those who voted had cast their ballots for the ruling coalition. This means the coalition was supported by only about one-quarter of eligible voters, yet it now controls more than two-thirds of the Lower House. A survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun daily after the election found that only 11 percent of respondents thought the coalition deserved its victory because of its good policies. Seventy-two percent thought the coalition won only because the opposition did not appeal to voters. Another problem faced by Japan is the increasing distrust in politics by the people in recent years.

Forty-three percent of respondents in the Asahi poll said that even if they had gone to vote, politics would not change one bit. Political analyst Jiro Yamaguchi of Hosei University noted that the LDP had won big although support for Abe’s policies was declining.