Monday, October 23, 2006

Welcome to the Machine

As expected, the LDP candidates defeated the Minshutō candidates in the two by-elections held on Sunday.

Just as predictably, the newspapers this morning are saying that the results cast doubt upon Ozawa Ichirō's mythical powers of pulling electoral rabbits out of hats.

[An aside--but how hard can it be to cast doubt upon mythical (shinwateki) powers? They're mythical, aren't they? Only the Mainichi Shimbun seems to get the vocabulary right, calling into doubt Ozawa's "mystical powers" (shintsūryoku)]

Like certain ventilations on North Korea, the speculation in the newspapers does not even have the saving grace of being wrong.

Ozawa's "mythical" or "mystical" reputation largely rests on one big surprise result: the Shinshintō's win in the 1995 House of Councillors election. The gleeful almost giddy face of Ozawa as he handled his first press conference following the Shinshintō's 1.5 million vote stomping of the LDP in the national election totals is a nearly iconic image of 1990's politics.

With the passage of time, Ozawa's achievement seems far less of a "Wow!" and more of a "Well, duuuhhhh."

While the general public in 1995 still felt the sting of intense disappointment at the weakness of the two short-lived anti-LDP coalition governments, it was nevertheless open-minded toward non-LDP parties. With the Socialists in bed with the LDP, the Shinshintō was fighting the Communists and the bizarre Sakigake and Niin Clubs for protest votes.

Ozawa, however, had an ace in the hole--the Shinshintō had absorbed the Komeitō. Even before making his first campaign appearance, Ozawa had around 8 million votes in the bag.

How significant was an 8 million vote cushion?

Let us review the final counts

Niin Club......................1,282,596
Sports and Peace...........541,894
New Heisei.....................506,551

Well, dang. The hostage Komeitō vote put Ozawa two thirds of the way to victory.

To Ozawa's credit, the Shinshintō was able to pull in more votes than the Communist Party in an election that was half free-for-all, half freak show (Remember the UFO Party, advocating greater recognition for peaceful relations with space aliens? 54,524 votes!)

Since then, Ozawa's powers have been far from mythical or mystical or even remotely scary. He is a regional politician with national pretensions. Secure in his homebase of Iwate and surrounded by a defensive wall of acolytes in the Tōhoku, he has seduced the nation's center with blather about founding a real conservative movement, moderate but tough, patriotic but internationalist--and not a rag bag like the LDP.

A humdinger of plot...until Koizumi Jun'ichirō stole it.

Since then Ozawa has been drifting. His Conservative Party blew up after his second break up with the LDP (Can anyone think of a ruling party in major Western democracy with as many swingers as the LDP? First they're in, then they're out...then they're back in, and, in a few instances, they're right back out again).

After a long period of lurking in the shadows, Ozawa has grasped the nettle of leadership of the Democratic Party, a party without an ideology or a core constituency.

Which brings up a second point: the Democrats did great on Sunday.

Sure the party lost both elections by hideous looking margins:

54.8% to 40.3% in Kanagawa #16

50.2% to 41.7% in Osaka #9

....but the margin of the loss was small--only about 19,000 votes in both cases.

What killed the chances of the Democrats was neither policy gaffes, nor poor candidates nor the Abe Cabinet's soaring popularity.

It was turnout.

The percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in the Sunday by-elections set new record lows in both districts.

Only 52.15% of the electorate voted in Osaka District #9 (as compared to 67.56% in the 2004 general election.) Only 47.16% voted in Kanagawa #16 (as compared to 64.88% in 2004).

When voter turnout is low, the machine voter rules.

So the Democrats lost...but they did best where it counts in the long run: among the non-aligned voters.

Exit polls showed that in Kanagawa #16, running for a seat vacated by the death of his father, LDP candidate Kamei Zentarō could only attract 37% of the non-aligned vote. His challenger, newcomer Gōtō Yuichi, received 59% of the non-aligned vote.

In Osaka #9, winner Harada Kenji did even worse among the non-aligned, receiving a mere 28% of the non-aligned vote while his opponent, veteran Otani Nobumori, received 61% of the non-aligned vote.

In both districts, exit polls found that non-aligned voters made up only 17% of those voting.

The inescapable conclusion: that in a general election, when voter turnout is higher and the percentage of non-aligned voters swells, the Democratic candidates will be much, much tougher to beat.

So, though I have been hard as heck on the Democrats, I like their chances in the July elections a lot better today.

I even think the party's fey commercial works.

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