The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, published recently a detailed study*--carried out jointly with three Waseda University political scientists--that analyzes extensive polling data on past Japanese elections. The book focuses on the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) August 30, 2009 landslide victory in the House of Representatives where the party won an unprecedented 308 seats.
Each of the seven chapters tackles the polling data from a different angle trying to explain why the DPJ was suddenly catapulted into power and ending the near 50-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, with the exception of one year). In August, the LDP was able only to garner 119 seats, far below the 296 seats it had won four years before. The analysis suggests that LDP decline began long ago and that the enormous shift of voter behavior to favor the DPJ followed a predictable pattern.
The structure of decline of the LDP is meticulously examined in the first chapter by Professor Aiji Tanaka of Waseda’s Institute of Political and Economic Studies. The historic defeat of the LDP in 2009 was in stark contrast to the Party’s decisive victory in the 2005 lower-house election. Tanaka asks the key question: "What happened in only four years to bring about such a radical change in voter behavior?".
He notes that to explain this, one has to go back to 1993, when the LDP lost its majority in an election and was out of power for a year while a coalition government of mostly small parties ruled. The Party came back in 1994 with its own coalition. Looking at the number of votes won in elections, he explains that gradually after 1993, the LDP’s strength declined, while the vote-getting power of the largest opposition party, the DPJ, increased. By 2003, the DPJ was winning the vote in proportional representative races.
In that context, the 2005 LDP win under Prime Minister Koizumi was an anomaly. Koizumi dissolved the Lower House for a snap election on September 11 when bills to privatize postal services were voted down in the Diet. The election became a referendum of his reform agenda. During that election, the LDP picked up 60 seats to win a solid majority of 296 out of the 480 seats in the Lower House. The DPJ lost 64 seats and was whittled down to 113. In both small districts and in proportional representation races, the LDP outscored the DPJ.
The pendulum swung back in 2009 to favor the DPJ, which won 308 seats. To analyze that seemingly incredible win, Tanaka first examines long-range voting trends, starting with the number of eligible voters. In 1979, there were approximately 80 million eligible voters in Japan. By 2000, the number rose by 20 million to approximately 100 million. By 2009, it reached 103 million.
However, the total number of people who actually voted in elections as of 2005 was only about 60 million, reflecting a long range trend of a declining turnout rate. This trend directly affected the LDP’s ability to gather votes in elections for the party, despite the decline in votes tallied, was able to increase its relative rate of vote getting as the turnout rate dropped. As a result of the dropping turnout rate, the LDP was able to maintain its position at the top in elections. The organized vote gathering ability of its post-2000 coalition partner, the New Komeito, also helped the LDP pick up more votes.
A rise in the absolute rate of vote getting (as a percentage of total eligible voters) of the LDP after 2000 reflects the impact of cooperation in election districts between the LDP and the New Komeito, which is able to tap an organized vote of supporters who are members of the religious sect, Soka Gakkai, that backs that party.
The voting behavior of unaffiliated voters (mutohaso) is also a key to understanding the results of recent lower-house elections. In the 2005 election that became a test of Prime Minister Koizumi’s reform agenda, the number of voters who went to the polls increased by 8 million, compared to 2003. The turnout rate in that election rose seven percent. At the same time, the LDP increased the total number of votes received in the small districts by over 6.5 million. One can assume that the LDP because of the Koizumi factor was able to garner most of those 8 million additional votes.
The LDP up through the 2003 election was able to rely heavily on organized votes from such groups as farmers, construction workers, doctors, and right-wing religious organizations. Its vote gathering capability among individuals, most notably urban voters, hardly increased at all. So the big win by the party in 2005 must be seen as an anomaly, after which the former pattern of decline returned.
In the 2009 lower-house election, the turnout rate rose about 2% --an additional 2.5 million voters--over the already high 2005 election, reaching 69.28%. Compared to 2003, the number of voters who went to the polls increased by 10.8 million or 10%. If the tallies in small districts alone are counted, the DPJ during the period from 2003 to 2009 increased the number of votes received by 11.6 million. Consequently, in 2009, almost all of the additional votes, with the exception of 800,000, went to the DPJ.
Why did the voters swing drastically from the LDP in 2005 to the DPJ in 2009? The logic is that they chose the “reform party” in both cases. In contrast to 2005, when the economic structural reforms, starting with postal privatization, triggered strong support by unaffiliated and other voters in the election, 2009 saw the LDP under Prime Minister Taro Aso displaying no broad policy vision for the nation to approve at the polls. Only words of criticism of the DPJ’s policies, as seen in the party’s manifesto (campaign pledges), came out of the campaigning mouths of Aso and other members of the LDP. The voters hardly heard any message from the LDP and its leaders as to where they were going to take Japan. In contrast, the DPJ campaigned on “change” or reform, citing the failure of LDP policies.
Another take on the historical significance of the DPJ election can be found in the special edition of the monthly liberal opinion journal Sekai (December 2009). In a wrap up discussion, three political scientists conclude that the election that resulted in “regime change” can be characterized not as an affirmative endorsement of the DPJ and its policies but more as a negative reaction to the long rule of the LDP and its policies. In other words, the election was a massive rejection of the existing politics.
This can be seen in the high turnout rate, which occurred twice in the past – in 1989 when the Japan Socialist Party scored well in the election for the Upper House, and in 2005, when voters signaled their overwhelming approval of the Koizumi reforms that aimed at undermining the power base of his own party, the LDP. If there was a mandate from the 2009 election, it was for the DPJ to move politics away from the previous system that allegedly entrusted policy to the bureaucracy toward a new paradigm that emphasized politicians accepting responsibility for policy-making and returning to power to the people who elected them.
The election in that sense was not necessarily an endorsement of the DPJ’s Manifesto, which was a grab-bag of campaign promises regarding specific issues. The Manifesto, in other words, lacked the kind of conceptual or ideological base that for example can be found in the manifestos of political parties in the United Kingdom.
What is clear from the results of the last two lower-house elections, the political scientists agree, is that a good portion of those Japanese voters who voted in 2005 to support Prime Minister Koizumi’s efforts switched to the DPJ in 2009. They wanted to end the entrenched vested interests that the LDP in their minds represented. Many were also convinced that there was something funny about the way LDP governments and the central bureaucracy move about money, starting with the budget-compilation process.
In that sense, the DPJ manifesto does promise specifically to revise the system of budget compilation in a way that attracted many voters. Other factors, including the decline of the organized agricultural vote, as farming villages aged and gradually depopulated, the rise of the urban voter as a powerful force in elections, which the DPJ was able to tap significantly, and the U.S.’ perceived excessive influence on LDP policies, both foreign and domestic economic policies (including the claim of the collapse of the American model internationally with the economic crisis launched by U.S. bank failures) played a role in voter choice in the 2009 election.
APP Senior Fellow
*Tanaka Aiji, Kohno Masaru, Hino Airo, Iida Takashi and theYomiuri Shimbun Public Opinion Survey Department.Why Was There a Change in Government in 2009? [２００９年、なぜ政権交代だったのか, 2009-nen, naze seiken koudai datta no ka?]. Tokyo: Keiso Shobo, Tokyo, 2009