Given the polling numbers from the major newspapers predicting up to and over 300 seats going to the Democratic Party of Japan and possibly as few as 100 seats for the Liberal Democratic Party, some commentators have begun floating the idea that voters in this last week, looking at the bleak outlook for the LDP, might just change their minds and vote for the LDP or its candidates out of sympathy -- or pity, if you prefer.
An article in today's Tokyo Shimbun pretty much lays that idea to rest.
Last minute sympathy switching did occur in the past, with voters shifting their support from the candidate in the lead position to underdogs in the last week of a contest. However, such switching was a characteristic of the era of medium-sized, multi-member districts where several candidates from a single party could win election. When it became clear that a certain candidate's vote totals were going to be far greater than necessary to win election in a district, the party (most frequently the LDP) would encourage a segment of that candidate's voting bloc to suddenly feel sorry for another candidate in the district, a member of the party who was failing to attract the votes necessary to win election. One could not really say that such sympathy voting was the result of an autonomous welling up of deep human feeling. Instead, it looked very much like a cold, calculated and frequently filthy dirty bit of vote trading undertaken in order to maximize the number of a party's (again, frequently the LDP's) candidates winning election to the Diet from a particular district.
[For an example of where sympathy voting could get you, see the life story of former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō.]
With the advent of the single member districts, however, sympathy voting as an institution came to an end. With only one member from any party eligible for a district seat, there is no opportunity to help out the like-minded but downtrodden candidates. Sympathy voting would have to be a private affair - a decision by the individual voter to vote for a candidate who is behind in the polls because he or she is behind in the polls.
A somewhat peculiar reason to vote for a candidate -- "I will vote for you because you are losing" -- but not impossible.
Under the current system, with each person holding two votes -- one for the district candidate and one for the proportional bloc seat -- it is possible to show sympathy by splitting one's votes. One can vote for candidate of one party in the district election and then turn around and reward another party with one's proportional vote. Voters could, in theory, give one of their proportional vote to the DPJ, then turn around and out of sympathy for the local Dietman's many years of service to the area, give the district vote to the LDP.
In practice, however, it turns out that voters are not only not sympathetic, they are merciless and vindictive. Rather than feel a surge of sympathy for hardpressed candidates, vacillating voters have moved en masse during the last week toward the winning candidate and party. In both the 2005 House of Representatives election and the 2007 House of Councillors, the public opinion polls taken one week prior to election day underestimated the numbers of seats and votes of the eventual winning party was to receive. Voters, rather than seeking to reverse trends, seemed to have instead checked to see which way the political winds were blowing, then gone with the more powerful side.
Which, to put it mildly, does not bode well for the LDP and its candidates.