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Editorial: Poor election turnout a warning over Japan's crumbling democracy

Voter turnout in the July 21 House of Councillors election stood at 48.8% for constituencies, the second lowest on record. While this was affected by heavy rain that lashed Kyushu in southwestern Japan, it is the first time participation has dipped below the 50% mark since the 1995 upper house poll, in which the voting rate came to 44.52%.

This situation is quite critical and one the Japanese people as a whole should take seriously.

What is of grave concern is that since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2012, the turnout in each of six elections in the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives failed to reach 60% -- meaning the latest poor voter turnout is nothing unusual.

The result is that representatives of the people are elected in national polls where only about half of the voting population cast their ballots, giving them the mandate to steer national politics. It can be said that the foundations of Japan's parliamentary democracy are beginning to fall apart.

Obviously, both the ruling and opposition parties are to blame for distracting public interest from elections.

Under Prime Minister Abe's prolonged dominance within the LDP, the party has almost lost its signature vibrant discussions among its legislators. It remains unclear who will succeed Abe as party president after his tenure expires in the fall of 2021. Opposition parties, meanwhile, have proven powerless in the Diet due in part to the debacle of the previous administration led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan. It is under these circumstances that recent nationwide elections have been held almost every year.

Many voters might be resigned to the misperception that nothing would change in politics even if they vote. Or perhaps they are simply tired of elections.

Another point of concern is that Tokushima Prefecture in western Japan witnessed the lowest turnout, at 38.59%, among all prefectural constituencies in the latest upper house contest.

After the previous upper house election in 2016, some constituencies were merged with others in order to rectify vote-value disparities between the most densely and sparsely populated electoral districts. In one such constituency that combined the Tokushima and Kochi electoral districts in western Japan, all of the LDP and opposition candidates in the latest election were based in Kochi Prefecture, apparently alienating voters in neighboring Tokushima Prefecture.

The LDP assigned its candidates who could not run from their constituencies due to the merger to the special priority quota in the proportional representation bloc, sweeping them into upper chamber seats. However, candidates running from that quota are restricted in their campaigning. There is no way voters can have an interest in those candidates.

Even though the merged constituencies were introduced as a stop-gap measure to correct vote-value disparity, the system requires a review.

The fact that the new political group Reiwa Shinsengumi acquired two seats can be said to represent new movements among people who are dissatisfied with the existing parties both in the ruling and opposition camps. However, such movements are still in the minority.

As many constituencies were fiercely contested in the upper house race, the election results could have been considerably different if voter turnout was about 10% higher. We the people of Japan should be aware that abstaining from voting, which is a form of participation in politics, is tantamount to giving carte blanche to politicians.

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