Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hitting The Road

Playground (2015). Image by MTC.

Why should I care?
Why should I care?

- Pete Townsend, "5:15" (1973)

There's no success like failure
and failure's no success at all.

- Bob Dylan, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" (1965)

It was not a terribly good weekend for Democratic Party of Japan leader Okada Katsuya. Liberal Democratic Party/Komeito coalition-backed candidates won 10 out of 10 governor seats up for election. The LDP came out as the top seat holder in 40 of the 41 prefectural assemblies holding elections, the sole blot on the perfect record being in Osaka Prefecture. The DPJ finished out the day with fewer total seats in the both the prefectural and the 17 specially designated city assemblies. And to top it off someone hacked Okada's personal Twitter feed on Saturday, generating a flood of spam tweets to all of those following his feed.

The LDP did all right. Its candidates certainly won the governorships. However, only two of the races -- Hokkaido and Oita -- were competitive. In truth, not even the Oita race was competitive, as in former Socialist bastion Oita former Socialist prime minister Murayama Tomiichi campaigned for the LDP-Komeito candidate, an old friend of his. The LDP raised the number of prefectures where it holds an outright majority in the assembly from 21 to 24. It finished the day with 50.48% of all prefectural seats nationwide. On the minus side, the LDP's total number of prefectural seats fell by 43 to 1153.

The big winners were the Japan Innovation Party, the Komeito and the Communists. The JIP increased its national total in the prefectures from 62 to 70 seats and won a plurality if not a full majority of the seats in the Osaka prefectural assembly. The Komeito won every seat it contested on the prefectural level, going from 169 seats to 169 seats (demonstrating once again the party leadership's knowledge of its voters) and raised its seat totals in the specially designated cities from 172 seats to 174. Indeed only one Komeito candidate failed to win a seat on Sunday, coming up short in a race for a seat in the Osaka City assembly.

The Communists, in many races the only opposition candidate, had a field day. The JCP blasted from 75 total seats to 111 in the prefectural assemblies. The JCP now owns at least one seat in every prefectural assembly, including the six not holding election this cycle - a historic first for the party. In the specially designated city assemblies, the JCP moved past the DPJ as the #3 party in the nation, raising its seat totals in these cities from 103 seats to 136 (the LDP is #1 with 301 seats, the Komeito #2 with 174).

All the wins and losses, however, come with a caveat: voter turnout was terrible. New record lows for voter turnout were set in 38 of the 41 prefectures holding assembly votes. In the specially designated city assembly races, 12 of 17 suffered new record low turnout. On average, voter turnout in the gubernatorial elections was down over 5% from turnout in 2011, the one big exception being the competitive race in Hokkaido. However, even in the Hokkaido gubernatorial race turnout declined, from 59.62% to 59.46%.

Average turnout for prefectural assembly (brown line) and gubernatorial (blue line) elections since 1947. Image courtesy Tokyo Shimbun.

Bad turnout of course favors the parties with strong with strong internal mechanisms guaranteeing dutiful voting by its members and clients. It disfavors, and indeed is a symptom of the weakness of, parties that rely attracting floating voters for their victories.

Hence, the DPJ did as well as it should have done -- which is not well at all.

There is a serious amount of specious framing going on of the results as well. News accounts have portrayed the DPJ's losses in the prefectural assemblies as devastating, with the Yomiuri Shimbun crowing:
In prefectural assembly elections in 41 prefectures, the total number of seats won by DPJ-backed candidates fell 82 from the previous elections to 264.

Of course, the Yomiuri's editors know full well that the DPJ of 2011 is not the DPJ of today. The DPJ that ran candidates in 2011 was the big tent DPJ, before the departures of Ozawa Ichiro and friends over the consumption tax rise and the skedaddling of the mostly Kansai-based opportunists to Hashimoto Toru's Isshin no kai.

A look at the numbers

Image courtesy: NHK News

shows that the DPJ was defending only 276 seats on Sunday. The party's candidates won 264 prefectural seats, a decline of -4.3% in the national total. The purported big winning LDP (for that is the way the Yomiuri characterized the LDP's results in its English-language edition) was defending a 1196 seats total. Finishing with 1153 means a decline of -3.6% nationally.

Not that dramatic a difference if you ask me.

The results on Sunday, however, do demonstrate the hurdles Okada-san and the DPJ have to overcome in order to return the party to good graces with the voters, if not with political reporters and editors:

- get people excited about voting again (like I said in this article)

- dump the chase-a-scandal-a-day tactics in the Diet. Spending time grilling cabinet members about their political funding organizations did not make the DPJ more popular this winter. The days of haranguing and the decidedly minor revelations did not affect the public opinion polling of the Cabinet or the LDP. (The videos of the latest NHK poll results are available here and here.)

The latter is easy. The former, however, is hard. The DPJ rode in blissful ignorance on the escalator to power in 2009, propelled upward by a 25 year cycle of "Anyone But The LDP" public revulsion at Japan's ruling party. When being just "anyone else" is sufficient for victory, one can be, as the DPJ was in 2009, just a pale-lipped copy of the LDP, with the LDP's political DNA still visible beneath the overlay of an opposition party.

We now live in an era of "One Strong, Many Weak" (ikkyo tajaku). A superpowerful LDP feeds off of and encourages lower voter turnout, resulting in Japan's wild deviation from Duverger's Law (don't laugh at the link).

For the DPJ to become more relevant and for democratic processes to revive Okada and his loyalists have to come up with popular policies, not just popular-sounding policies. The party has to nurture a generation of new politicians while submitting its existing apparatus and message to rigorous and regular testing.

Otherwise, this happens -- and will keep happening.

The effort may be futile. As I have stated any number of times, a hard conservative Abe Cabinet and LDP, running the loosest and most liberal economic policy in the developed world leaves very little room on the political spectrum for the DPJ to plant its flag on.

However, if the results of Sunday demonstrate anything to Okada and Company, it is that the DPJ's present path and strategy have no future.

Change or decay -- it will be one or the other.

* * *

With this, I will be taking a break from regular posting for a while. I need to devote my energies to a new venture. I may pop in and out every so often, if changes in the political climate merit comment.

Time, as Robert Allen Zimmerman would have it, for my boot heels to be wanderin'.

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