Kwan Weng Kin, Japan Correspondent In Tokyo

Low turnout in Japanese election a cause for worry

Voter turnout in the recent election plunged to a record low of 52.7 per cent. Polls data shows that slightly less than half of those who voted had cast their ballots for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition.
Voter turnout in the recent election plunged to a record low of 52.7 per cent. Polls data shows that slightly less than half of those who voted had cast their ballots for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

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 per cent, 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 favoured 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 mobilised 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 per cent.

In the 2009 elections, when the LDP was trounced, 69.28 per cent 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 per cent, the LDP came back to power.

It is said that Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr 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 per cent of respondents thought the coalition deserved its victory because of its good policies. Seventy-two per cent 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 per cent 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 Mr Abe's policies was declining.

A Kyodo News survey after the election showed that only 27.3 per cent of respondents thought Abenomics - Mr Abe's growth policies aimed at lifting the economy out of 15 years of deflation - will improve the economy. Instead, 62.8 per cent did not think so.

But this did not stop Mr Abe from claiming he had received a solid mandate from the people for his economic policies.

Even more worrying for Japanese voters, he also insisted that voters have given him the go-ahead to proceed with unpopular policies such as restarting of idled nuclear reactors and giving Japan's de facto military the right to engage in collective self-defence - issues he had studiously avoided in his campaign speeches.

In the past, political parties were wary about media forecasts predicting that they would do very well, just days ahead of an election. It was believed that voters worried about giving too much power to any one party would switch their vote at the last minute to ensure a better balance between ruling and opposition camps.

This has not happened in the recent election, although media outlets had all predicted a two-thirds victory for Mr Abe's coalition.

"If voters had acted in rational ways, they would never have allowed the big wins for the LDP, whose policies they are so much critical of," wrote Professor Yamaguchi in The Japan Times.

The Japanese could be faced with the prospect of more elections in future that fail to reflect the will of the majority if more people decline to vote.

"If people abstain from voting because they cannot find a political party to vote for, the result will be what we have seen: a two-thirds majority and no one happy except the winning party," the Asahi quoted constitutional expert Yasuo Hasebe of Waseda University as saying.

Despite chafing over individual policies of Mr Abe such as dependence on nuclear energy and a more proactive security stance, the Japanese have returned him to power. This suggests that voters, tired of the revolving-door prime ministers of recent years, have now put stable government above all else and see Mr Abe as the best bet in this regard.

Their mistake, however, may be in giving Mr Abe's ruling coalition too large a majority.

This only tempts Mr Abe to ride roughshod over Parliament, as was the case last year when his government passed a controversial official secrets Act despite strong objections that it would silence the media and allow the bureaucracy to cover up misdeeds.

If the Japanese, despite their apathy, do not want their leaders to trample on their will, they need to behave more responsibly and go out and vote when the next election comes around.

wengkin@sph.com.sg