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Opinion: Japan general election shows party politics is no zero-sum game


The stronger their desire for approval, the more politicians fixate on election results. The same can be said of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who dissolved the House of Representatives four years ago after making the bombastic statement, "This is to overcome a national crisis," but stepped down from office when the nation was facing a real crisis.

    Last weekend, ahead of the Oct. 31 lower house election, Abe rode an election campaign vehicle and went around the Yamaguchi No. 4 electoral district appealing to voters in his home constituency.

    During the concluding speeches given in front of Shimonoseki Station, journalist Yoshiko Sakurai made a surprise appearance while being introduced as "Japan's leading journalist." Setting aside the obvious question of whether a journalist should be campaigning for a candidate, Sakurai called on voters to help Abe win the race by the highest number of votes in the country.

    Abe has earned a reputation for doing well in elections. In the past three general elections, even if he was not present during campaigning, he still gained over 100,000 votes and a share of over 70% of votes in his constituency each time. Even in the general election 12 years ago that ushered the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan into power, Abe secured a landslide victory with 120,000 votes. He told me that at that time, he went canvassing door to door, and that "when a famous person comes, children come out one after the other, creating an effect like that in the folk tale Momotaro" (in which the protagonist who set out on a quest to defeat ogres is accompanied by animals he meets along the way).

    General elections evaluate the performance of politicians. If there are calls for a verdict to be delivered on the "authoritarian politics of Abe and (his successor Yoshihide) Suga," those named will become motivated to prove their opponents wrong by gaining massive votes. In spite of his first attendance in 12 years at a kick-off ceremony on the day of the election's official declaration, Abe gained about 80,000 votes, 20,000 votes fewer than in the previous election. The total is incomparable to the 210,000 votes secured by former COVID-19 vaccine minister Taro Kono, and must be a result that baffled Abe himself.

    Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Suga clung to his electoral district and won around 20,000 more votes than in the previous race. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a whole also earned 19.91 million votes -- up 1.36 million votes from the previous general election -- in the proportional representation bloc which indicates each political party's influence. It seems logical to consider Abe's decrease in votes as well as then party secretary-general Akira Amari's defeat in his single-seat constituency as scattered cases of veterans passing their prime.

    As one may be able to see, even though the LDP's seat numbers in the lower house declined, there has been no sense of defeat among the ruling party, nor views that a harsh verdict was delivered regarding the politics of Abe and Suga. This is a result of decision-making errors by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), which was unable to turn to its advantage public dissatisfaction with the government's failure in its COVID-19 response.

    It's clear that the public's concerns lie with coronavirus countermeasures and the economy. But because the CDP partnered with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) on a policy menu favored by the fixed leftist support base, votes from non-LDP supporters who did not sympathize with either the LDP and Komeito ruling coalition, or the CDP and JCP alliance, went to the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party).

    Jun Azumi, the CDP's Diet Affairs Committee chairperson, who became complacent following the collaboration between the CDP and JCP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election this summer, extoled the JCP as having "real power" superior to that of the Tokyo chapter of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo). He saw only the alliance's positive aspects, and had not considered the countereffects that could occur in a conservative climate.

    It has been 25 years since the introduction of the single-seat constituency system in Japan's general elections. Although it is natural for a zero-sum game to take place, where the points lost by ruling parties turn into points gained by opposition parties, Japan's party politics has remained in a state where no functional game exists. One reason for this may be that the opposition parties have not accurately grasped their market of voters. Steadfast conservatives have prevailing power.

    (Japanese original by Ko Koga, Expert Senior Writer)

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