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Japan’s landslide not quite what it seems

One of the ideas behind this blog is that election results can’t always be taken at face value: the headlines don’t necessarily reflect what actually happened, and even what actually happened might not reflect what people voted for. Last Sunday’s election in Japan provides a rather nice illustration.

The headlines are quite unequivocal: the opposition Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide, turfing out the Democratic Party of Japan after only a single term. The LDP will have a comfortable majority in its own right with 294 of the 480 lower house seats, and counting its ally the New Komeito Party it will have a two-thirds majority. But the votes cast tell a slightly different story.

Japan’s electoral system combines both single-member electorates (300 seats) and proportional representation (180 seats). Unlike, say, the New Zealand system, the proportional vote does not determine the overall results; it just provides an allocation of extra seats that mitigates somewhat the unfairness of the single-member seats.

The single-member seats, as always, tend to exaggerate majorities and disadvantage smaller parties. But they are also badly malapportioned: the rural seats that favor the LDP sometimes have only half as many voters as urban seats. (Adam Carr has the 2009 results here.)

On Sunday, the LDP won only 27.8% of the proportional vote and 43.0% of the electorate vote, but came away with more than 60% of the seats. The three main parties opposed to it (the DPJ, the Restoration Party and Your Party) comfortably outvoted it in the proportional vote and almost did so in the electorate vote, but could only manage 129 seats between them.

(The results are all available here, but if your Japanese isn’t up to scratch you’ll probably want Wikipedia’s summary.)

Since the anti-LDP vote is so fragmented (the liberal DPJ and the nationalist Restoration Party would be most unlikely to work together), it’s probable that even a fair result would have produced an LDP government. But it would have looked a lot more shaky, and certainly wouldn’t have the nerve to claim the sort of popular mandate that Shinzo Abe now boasts.

The truth seems to be that Japan’s electorate is unenthusiastic about any of the choices on offer (turnout was also well down on recent years), and having decisively thrown out the LDP only three years ago it has returned to it only reluctantly. The new government would do well to keep that in mind.

(For the policy implications of Sunday’s result, don’t miss Damien Kingsbury’s piece from Monday’s Crikey – although my hunch is that Japanese voters care less about nuclear power (whether for or against) than western commentators do.)

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