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Can Japan’s opposition mobilise disaffected voters?

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In Brief

Japan will hold its upper house elections on 10 July. Polls indicate that the Abe administration and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) continue to hold a commanding lead that could position them for a significant, if not overwhelming victory.


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But many voters are dissatisfied with the Abe administration’s economic policies, suggesting potential for the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), to realise some gains.

The government’s headline approval ratings remain robust, if slightly weaker than in early June. The administration’s headline approval rating is at 47 per cent in NHK, 45 per cent in Asahi, 46.1 per cent in Jiji and 49 per cent in Yomiuri. These numbers are high by historical standards, and are impressive when coupled with a 30–40 per cent support rate for the LDP.

But this support may be softer than it appears. Poor economic news and relentless criticism of Abenomics by the opposition parties during the campaign could result in a smaller number of seats for the ruling coalition than Abe may prefer.

Disapproval of Abenomics is at 45 per cent in the latest Yomiuri poll and 47 per cent in NHK. Asahi, meanwhile, asked respondents to rate the government’s progress in boosting employment and wages thus far. Of the respondents, 69 per cent rated that progress as either little (50 per cent) or none (19 per cent), while only 28 per cent said a lot (2 per cent) or some (26 per cent) progress had been made.

The question is whether the DP and other opposition parties will be able to use this dissatisfaction to their advantage and appeal to unaffiliated voters. In 2013, turnout fell by more than five percentage points and more than 5 million votes, while the total votes for the Democratic Party of Japan (now the DP) in the proportional representation seat bloc fell by more than 11 million votes. A portion of those voters went to the LDP as well as several now defunct opposition parties. But a significant portion did not vote at all. Bringing at least some of those voters back to support the DP will be critical for Japan’s leading opposition party.

Thus far, it appears unlikely that the DP will succeed. In Yomiuri’s poll, 49 per cent say they want the ruling coalition to retain its upper house majority, compared with 36 per cent who do not. This suggests that there is only a limited desire on the part of voters to undermine the Abe government’s stability.

The DP has also struggled to convince voters of the wisdom of its electoral alliance with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), Social Democratic Party (SDP) and People’s Life Party (PLP). While the alliance has ensured that the opposition vote will not be divided in the 32 single-member constituencies — the key battleground in the campaign — voters are divided over the DP’s relationships, especially with the JCP. NHK found that 45 per cent either greatly (11 per cent) or somewhat (34 per cent) approve of an alliance between the two parties, while 45 per cent either somewhat (30 per cent) or completely (15 per cent) disapprove of the partnership. Yomiuri found that 40 per cent approve, while 36 per cent disapprove. Given these figures, it is not surprising that in the run-up to the campaign Abe has stressed the ‘irresponsibility’ of the opposition alliance, chiding the opposition parties for failing to offer any details about how they would govern if they won.

But there are some signs that the opposition could perform better than expected. A Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted 18–19 June found that 46 per cent of respondents wanted the opposition’s seat share to increase, compared with 34 per cent who wanted the ruling coalition’s seat share to increase. Independents, who make up at least a third of the electorate, were even more favourably disposed to the opposition: 57 per cent said they wanted the opposition to win more seats, compared with only 20 per cent who wanted the government parties to make gains. Significantly, in a 13 June Kyodo News poll, respondents favoured government party candidates to opposition party candidates by only a 26 per cent to 20 per cent margin in electoral district polling, a six-percentage-point drop in support for government candidates from early June.

The risk, of course, is that many independents will stay home. The Mainichi poll suggests that turnout could be even lower than in 2013, with just 85 per cent of respondents stating they are definitely (60 per cent) or probably (25 per cent) going to vote. Yomiuri found that 55 per cent say they definitely will vote and another 7 per cent say they probably will vote. Yet NHK found that 60 per cent said they will definitely vote — two points higher than at this point in 2013.

While the LDP–Komeito coalition has a distinct advantage heading into the campaign, the opposition could still pick up ground before 10 July. But it is unlikely that the Abe administration will boost its support ahead of the vote. Instead, the polls suggest that if the government wins a landslide victory, it will be because independent voters decided to stay home, rather than because the government draws in new supporters.

Tobias Harris is a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and an analyst at political risk advisory firm Teneo Intelligence.

A version of this article was first published here on Japan Political Pulse.

One response to “Can Japan’s opposition mobilise disaffected voters?”

  1. Pundits are opining that Abe is trying to focus on the economy for two reasons. First, his Abenomics and associated Womenomics programs are basically failures which he wants to overcome. Second, he is trying to distract voters away from his real agenda: rewriting the Constitution so as to eliminate Article 9 and to boost the SDF even more.

    In my opinion an old adage applies here: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’

    If independent and other voters stay home out of lethargy and/or in protest to Abe’s failed domestic policies so he maintains his huge majority in the Upper House, they will get what they deserve. Ie, a leader who is off chasing windmills rather than addressing admittedly very difficult and complex demographic, social, and economic challenges at home.

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