Sunday, December 16, 2012

Japan Votes in a Confused Election

Around two fifth, if not more, of the Japanese electorate, is either unwilling to vote or are undecided as to whom they should vote for in the country’s election. These include a large fraction of its younger population. Japanese society is ageing rapidly and politics has been largely an old people’s affair in most of its modern history.

The current election has become a confusing affair because of more than a dozen political parties involved. They have come to the forefront because both the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party (DP) have lost their popularity. The Japanese people, disappointed with the LDP, handed over the power to the DP three years ago, to be disappointed even more. However, many people are not prepared to call back the LDP to govern them.

National Diet Building of Japan (2009), Wiii, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the new parties are just weeks old in name but not old when it comes to the people involved. The Japan Restoration Party (JRP) is a new party only because it is the result of the merger of two other parties. The eighty year old popular former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, left his job to assume the leadership of a reformed “Sunrise Party.” He promptly merged it with Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party. The resultant alliance retained the name JRP and is led by Ishihara, a vocal nationalist. Meanwhile, a large splinter group of the Democratic Party parliamentary group has joined hands with the popular governor of Shiga Prefecture, Yukiko Kada, to form “Tomorrow Party.” While the latter has not shown much promise, the JRP is set to become one of the bigger parties in the new lower house in the Japanese Diet.

Despite its low popularity, the LDP is poised to become the largest party in the newly elected lower house of the Diet. The Japanese Diet, or the National Kokkai, is a bicameral legislature. The lower house, or the House of Representatives, has 480 members, out of which 300 are elected in single member constituencies and the others are elected in a proportional representative system across eleven block districts. Despite the decline in popularity, the LDP is the single most popular party in Japan today. Therefore, it will most probably win the majority of the 300 single member constituencies in the election and will also win a substantial portion of other 180. Even if it fails to win a majority, the LDP could form a coalition government with the support of moderate right wing parties such as the New Komeito Party.

The main issues of concern to the voters in this election are the economy, the future of nuclear power and the prevailing regional political environment, dominated by the ongoing maritime border dispute with China. The Japanese voters are at a loss when they try to figure out which party stands where about certain-especially economic-issues.

The Japanese are in a dilemma when it comes to nuclear energy. They do not want to live with it, but cannot go without it. Despite the fact that the support for nuclear power nosedived after the Fukushima disaster, the zero nuclear parties, who want to see Japan phasing out nuclear energy completely, enjoy little support. The main reason is that these parties, spearheaded by the Tomorrow Party and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) have not been able to propose viable alternatives to nuclear power.

The quest for energy sources is the primary motivation in pursuing an aggressive stance over the maritime boundary issue. This has rejuvenated the nationalists in Japan, such as Shintaro Ishihara, who is so anti-Chinese that he denies the occurrence of the Nanjing massacre. The 75th anniversary of the event was commemorated by China just three days before the Japanese go to polls and the Chinese people consider the event as a ‘forgotten holocaust.’

However, the average Japanese is reluctant to jump into the bandwagon of extreme nationalism of the types of Ishihara. Their alternative is the leader of the LDP, Shinzo Abe, who has also taken up a hawkish attitude over the issue. Nevertheless, Ishihara remains a relatively popular figure. A survey carried out by Yomiuri Shimbun between 23rd and 25th of November indicated that twenty percent of the respondents preferred him as Japan’s next Prime Minister, although the JRP as a party is not that popular. It is true that the Yomiuri Shimbun is a conservative newspaper and has predicted a much higher percentage of votes for the JRP than the surveys by other organizations. But Ishihara's ideas have struck a cord with a certain section of the electorate and it might play a part in helping the LDP to regain power.

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