Author: Tobias Harris, Teneo Intelligence
If pre-election polls are accurate, voter turnout in Japan’s Upper House election on 21 July could be well below historic highs. Voter interest in the campaign is subdued, and the share of voters who say they definitely intend to vote is lower than at the same point in 2016, when turnout was at 54.7 per cent — one of the lowest since 1995’s record low of 44.5 per cent. The three Lower House elections since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2012 have also seen the lowest turnout rates in Japan’s post-war history.
If voters do once again stay away from the polls, it will confirm perhaps that the dominant features of Japanese democracy during Abe’s tenure are voter apathy and the moribund state of inter-party competition.
Many commentators wonder how Japan has remained immune from the populism that is running rampant in its peers among the advanced industrial democracies of Europe and North America. But the question presumes that Japan has in fact been free of populism — even a cursory look at Japanese democracy since the early 1990s belies this claim. In fact, the Lower House elections of 2005 and 2009 that preceded Abe’s 2012 return turned on populist appeals and saw the highest levels of voter turnout since Japan adopted a new electoral system in 1994.
The collapse in voter turnout since 2012 may not have a single explanation, but it is at least partly a reflection of the public’s exhaustion with populist-tinged political competition.
Voters initially fell for former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s neoliberal populism in which he castigated the LDP’s old guard as the ‘forces of resistance’ and advocated for reforms that would open up Japan’s economy and break the old guard’s political power. They were then disillusioned when the LDP reverted to its old ways after Koizumi left office in 2006 and also wary of what they perceived as the harmful effects of Koizumi’s reforms — particularly growing inequality.
This combination created a unique opportunity for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). It promised new social programs to address post-Koizumi social anxieties while also promising a veritable political revolution that would not only toss the LDP from power, but would also cut the bureaucrats down to size and introduce proper political control of the government. But like many inexperienced populist parties, during its time in power between 2009–2012 the DPJ committed mistakes — both large and small — and the public abandoned it clearing the way for Abe’s comeback.
The upshot is that Japanese politics since 2012 has essentially been a long hangover after the populist-fuelled frenzies of the 2000s. Most voters, particularly independents, have not necessarily been enamoured with Abe or his policies for much of his second premiership. Still, the Abe cabinet’s approval ratings are consistently robust and, when they have dipped in the wake of contentious legislative battles or other controversies, they have always drifted back to around 50 per cent or higher.
At the same time, support for the DPJ, and its various successor parties since 2017, has been abysmal. Polling averages show that only the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party has approached double-digit support. It is still well behind the LDP’s support, which consistently hovers around 40 per cent.
Disillusioned by the populist waves of the 2000s, independents resist Abe’s muscular conservatism but are also extremely reluctant to embrace the anti-Abe politics of the DPJ and its successors or the Japanese Communist Party. The occasional outbreaks of mass demonstrations have been the exception that proves the rule. Independents largely abstain, LDP and Komeito grassroots supporters turn out in strength, and Abe romps to victory — this has been the story of every election since 2012.
A kind of managerial democracy has emerged as a result. Abe cannot push too hard with his ideological preoccupations — he tested the limits in 2014 and 2015 when he successfully reinterpreted the constitution to permit limited exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defence. But so long as he makes a good-faith effort to grapple with some of Japan’s more pressing economic and social issues, the public is willing to tolerate Abe’s staying in office with the support of strong majorities in both houses of the Diet.
In fact, political volatility and the rise of populism in other democracies is likely strengthening the appeal of Japan’s Abe-dominated post-populist democracy. A stable, durable government bolsters Japan’s ability to cope with global instability — some of Abe’s highest marks from the public are for his foreign policies — and the status quo, whatever its faults, looks preferable to the alternative.
Japan’s post-populist democracy may not be particularly exciting. After all, the biggest question on 21 July is not whether the ruling coalition will win but rather just how big its victory will be. And it may not be good for Japan over time. Robust multi-party competition fosters the kind of creative thinking needed to tackle some of the country’s most pressing challenges — as Abe’s return and the birth of Abenomics showed.
But for the time being, Japan’s electorate seems content with being an island of stability in a volatile world, clearing the way for what looks like Abe’s sixth consecutive national electoral victory as prime minister.
Tobias Harris is Senior Vice President at Teneo Intelligence, and Economy, Trade, and Business Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, based in Washington DC.