Friday, April 17, 2015

Japan local elections 2015-the power of (a specific) one

Over the past few days, Japan has held some of its regional elections, to little international media attention. This lack of attention was somewhat justified, as the election results were extremely unexciting. However, they do give some insight into to the support levels for Shinzo Abe, and the significant crisis of support for the opposition.

Japanese local government

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, which are the highest form of local government. They have powers over things like education and police, but these powers are only delegated by the central government. As a result, these elections are relatively low stakes.

Prefectures are led by a directly elected Governor. Budgets and laws have to be approved by an elected Assembly.

As a result of this, these elections are relatively low-stakes, in terms of political control. Of course, it is better for the government to control regional governments, as this means that governmental decisions can be taken more efficiently at the local level, rather than having thorny debates with opposition local government members.

The local elections are more important as a political event, however. They allow  elvoters to send signals about the national government, and can often lead to destabilisation for that government. A poor result in the 2011 elections for the incumbent centre-left Democratic Party, and was one of the factors that led to the downfall of incumbent Prime Minister Naato Kan.

The elections this year take place against a backdrop of strong support for the incumbent government. The centre-right Liberal Democratic government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, won a very comfortable victory in the 2014 election. More importantly, the opposition Democratic Party polled poorly, meaning that there is no single opposition party or alternative government.

The results

Japanese local elections are traditionally predictable and boring, given that most governors run against only token opposition. This seems to stem from the idea that governors are non-partisan figures that should not have to enter into political battles to retain their offices. The Communist Party has a policy of contesting all elections, but they rarely win single-member offices, especially when they are opposing a candidate with unanimous support from the non-communist parties.

Traditionally, some areas have had relatively hotly contested gubernatorial elections. The major cities of Tokyo and Osaka have had close elections, as well as the large island of Hokkaido.

Tokyo, however, did not have an election for governor this year. Due to the resignation of former governor Shintaro Ishihara, an early election was held, thus throwing the schedules out of whack.

As a result, ten governorships were up for election. In all these cases, the incumbent was reelected. Incumbents were almost all supported by Liberal Democrat/New Komeito (Buddhist) coalitions. Certain governors ran with the support of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, centre to centre-left). In one case, an incumbent governor ran with not only the support of these three groups, but with the support of the Social Democrats (left-wing) and the Japan Independence Party (right-wing nationalist led by someone who just can't keep his mouth shut). In only two cases was a sitting governor opposed by a DPJ candidate; in both cases, the sitting governor prevailed.

Regional assembly results were similar, although there was a bit more competition there. Liberal Democrats won 1153 seats out of 2284, while the DPJ won just 264. New Komeito won 169 seats (and apparently contested 169). The Communist Party managed 111, Japan Innovation won 72 seats nationwide, and became the biggest party (albeit without a majority) in Osaka.

What does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that Shinzo Abe is still popular. Abe looks set to be a long-term leader of Japan, something rare in a country with a revolving-door culture of Prime Ministers such as Japan. No one can tell what the future holds for the incumbent government, but it looks like it will take quite an event to knock Abe off his pedestal.

Second of all, it suggests that the Japanese opposition is in serious trouble. It's true that the Japan Innovation Party and the Communist Party are doing well, but these are ideologically extremist parties that are unlikely to win government. The Democrats have a centrist policy profile, but they clearly left bad perceptions behind from their term in government. This perception is not helped by the fact that their leader Katsuya Okada is a former Democrat leader, and a former deputy prime minister.

Finally, something I left out from above: turnout. On average, turnout was 47%, down from 52% in the 2014 national election, 59% in 2012, and 69% in 2009. Clearly, Japanese voters are becoming less interested in politics. This seems to spring from weakness of the opposition, which makes elections a foregone conclusion.

This threatens to create a vicious cycle for the Japanese opposition, particularly the Democrats. The party's weakness stems from poor election results, which reduces turnout amongst opposition voters who see elections as a foregone conclusion, thus reducing Democrat support, thus reducing turnout. It is unclear what it will arrest this decline, but at the moment it looks like Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democrats will rule Japan for the forseeable future.

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