The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) scored a landslide victory in the election held in Japan on Sunday, December 16; and through its alliance with Komeito it will hold a supermajority in the Lower House. Despite this overwhelming victory, the key takeaways from this electoral contest are: an unenthusiastic electorate, a rejection of the DPJ experiment, a third pole that shattered, and an LDP victory by default. Let me elaborate:
Notwithstanding the many pressing issues in the national agenda such as the future of nuclear power, the reactivation of the Japanese economy, membership in the TPP, etc., many Japanese voters stayed away from the polling stations. Voter turnout in this election was only around 59%, the lowest in the postwar period. This election was mostly a rejection of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rule, a party that fell dramatically short of the expectations of “regime change” of three years ago. The so-called “third pole parties” that proliferated recently also failed to gain traction with Japanese voters as the electoral alliances they cobbled together in the weeks prior to the election led to the sacrifice of hallmark policies and left a bad taste among many Japanese voters. In the end, these smaller parties fragmented the anti-mainstream party vote, helping magnify the LDP lead in the single-seat districts. Most importantly, the LDP did not achieve this major electoral win by riding on a wave of widespread popular support. Its share of the vote in single-seat districts was only around 43% and it received an even lower level of the total vote in the proportional representation seats (around 28%).
This then sets the stage for what we may expect the Shinzo Abe administration to do in the next few months as it consolidates its rule. Japanese voters are mostly hungry for decisive leadership and economic growth, and with the comfortable lead they have now given to the LDP in the Lower House, they will have greater expectations that these changes are forthcoming. Mr. Abe may try to comply by resorting both to old-style pork-barrel spending and non-conventional measures such as pressuring the Bank of Japan to adopt a higher inflation target and buying unlimited amounts of construction bonds in an attempt at monetary easing. These are all controversial policy measures, but they will help Mr. Abe show that he is taking action in the area that most worries voters: the economy. And yet, aware of the fickleness of the Japanese voter and determined to eliminate legislative gridlock by securing a majority in the Upper House election next summer, Mr. Abe may well be tempted to postpone the much more needed structural deregulation of the Japanese economy and participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.