The 2012 Japanese Election Paradox
How the LDP Lost Voters and Won the Election

by Robert Pekkanen
December 18, 2012

The dust is settling on the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) huge victory in Japan’s House of Representatives general election of December 16, 2012. With the LDP standing a majestic 237 seats clear of the second-largest party, a distance nearly half the size (49.3%) of the entire chamber now separates the LDP from its closest competition—the erstwhile governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). How can we see this as anything other than a historic triumph for a party that Ellis Krauss and I called “the most successful political party in the democratic world”? [1] In fact, this election result represents less an embrace of the LDP than a rejection of the DPJ and squandered opportunities by potential “third force” opponents. In other words, this election is like the 2009 election that brought the DPJ to power through a rejection of the LDP and unlike the LDP’s 2005 mandate victory under then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. In fact, when we examine the party vote, we see that fewer voters chose the LDP over other parties in 2012 than in 2009. The LDP won because of a divided and weak opposition. In other words, the LDP lost the election—except compared to everyone else.

Largest LDP Victory Ever

There is no denying that the LDP won a smashing victory in terms of what counts most—the number of seats in the legislature (the Diet). Indeed, this is arguably the biggest electoral victory ever for the LDP—amazing especially when one considers that the party ruled nearly continuously from 1955 to 2009. To put this in perspective, it is proportionally the same as if one party in the United States won a 49-seat advantage in the Senate. The LDP did very well in 2005, winning 296 out of 480 seats (61.7%) to the DPJ’s 113 (a gap of 183 seats, or 38.1%). In 1986, the LDP took 300 out of 511 seats (its high-water mark at 62.2%), well clear of the Japan Socialist Party’s 138 (a 33.7% gap). Japan’s sparring with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands undoubtedly contributed to a nationalist atmosphere benefiting the LDP, but we can point to some evidence that there is less than meets the eye to the LDP’s big win.

The LDP Didn’t Win: Everyone Else Lost

Voters didn’t embrace the LDP. Turnout hit a postwar low at 59.3%. The mid-December timing undoubtedly kept many busy or cold people home, but so did tepid feelings about the parties. Moreover, voters expressed weak enthusiasm for the LDP in numerous polls before the election, and party support hovered in the high 20% range. Pollsters asking who was the right leader for Japan received answers all over the map—with political outsiders, novices, and “none of the above” making respectable showings. The large number of new parties and candidates revealed the volatility of the political landscape. With voters often dissatisfied with all 12 political parties contesting the election, Japanese voters seemed to want to amend Bruce Springsteen’s “57 channels (And Nothin’ On)” to “12 Parties (And Nothin’ On).” We might compare the 2012 election to one almost twenty years ago. In 1993, Japanese voters also found themselves facing brand new parties and a discredited governing party riven by huge defections. But at that time and despite major corruption scandals disillusioning many, it seems that a substantial number of voters were alive to the possibilities for a fresh start and major changes in the political world in a way that 2012 could not match. In other words, this was not 1993 all over again.

We should also keep in mind that the electoral system magnifies small shifts in votes to large shifts in seats. So while the LDP gained a lot of seats, it didn’t pick up nearly as many voters, and those voting LDP in many cases seemed to feel they were picking the least-bad option rather than warmly embracing the LDP. The electoral results show a rejection of the DPJ, a party many voters supported tentatively in 2009. The DPJ was punished at the polls for its internal divisions (it began in 2009 with 308 seats but boasted only 230 when the Diet was dissolved in 2012) and failures in domestic policy (the response to the 2011 triple disaster under then prime minister Naoto Kan) and in foreign policy (then prime minister Yukio Hatoyama’s 2009 mishandling of the issue of U.S. basing in Okinawa, as well as territorial tensions with China).

Keep in mind that in the crushing defeat of 2009 the LDP won 55 seats in the proportional representation tier where voters choose parties. In 2012, the LDP won only 2 more seats (57 total) in the same tier. Voters were not flocking to the LDP, but the party won in 237 of the 300 single-member districts against weak and divided opposition. The great success of the DPJ in uniting opposition forces in 2009 shattered into a 2012 defeat. With turnout nearly 10% lower this election, this means that fewer people chose the LDP as their party than in 2009.

Has the LDP Changed Since 2009? Not Really

Now that the LDP has won such a commanding position in the legislature, we may begin asking how different this party is from the one that that the DPJ eviscerated at the polls in 2009. I am exploring this research topic with Masahisa Endo and Steven Reed, but my short answer is: not that much. Whether we look at party organization, policies, leadership, or the makeup of the legislature, this is not a reinvented party like “New Labour” in Britain or Clinton’s Democrats. The LDP simply didn’t need a wholesale makeover to swing back into power.

How Will Abe Govern?

There’s another question of immediate interest: what lessons did Shinzo Abe learn from his first stint as prime minister, starting in 2006? Abe began his first term under glorious circumstances. Few prime ministers anywhere have inherited as enviable a position—majorities in both houses, a clock for the next House of Representatives general election that wouldn’t even begin ticking for a long time, anointment by a popular predecessor gracefully exiting the main stage, and personal success with the media as well as previous terms as secretary general (2003) and chief cabinet secretary (2005). Abe quickly won plaudits from many for conciliating China with his first official visit being a trip to Beijing and by staying away from the Yasukuni Shrine. Before long, though, that inheritance was squandered. Misplaying the loss of millions of pension records and leading the LDP to a defeat in the House of Councillors election in 2007 (which led to two years of gridlock) caused his approval rating to plummet. In 2007, Abe resigned as prime minister for “health reasons,” beginning the carousel of prime ministers that has brought him back to office.

How will this term be different? For one thing, Abe’s nationalist themes will probably play better than they did in 2006, when many found them an unwelcome distraction from a focus on the economy. Abe seems sincerely committed to these issues and is likely to pursue them as prime minister—especially since he won the party presidency in part through successful appeals on these policies. There’s still a danger of overreach, and it remains to be seen whether his touch has grown any defter—although his walk away from revisiting the Kono Declaration, broached in the party presidential election, may indicate that it has. In contrast to his first term, Abe is unlikely to repeat the strategy of reassuring China. For one thing, the national mood has shifted. For another, he will likely look to emphasize the reliability of the LDP in managing the U.S.-Japan alliance. Hence, his first official trip will probably find him in the United States, not China. He also earned quick criticism for his “friends of Shinzo” cabinet in 2006. It is reasonable to expect that he has learned the importance of cabinet selection and will choose a group longer on experience and shorter on chumminess.

We can take a quick temperature reading from Abe’s new cabinet, his first trip abroad, and various symbolic issues. But rather than the outcomes of any of these issues, it will be more important to note how Abe’s behavior evinces lessons learned from his first go-round as prime minister. With a huge majority in the House of Representatives, a splintered opposition, and reasonable chances (at this stage) for major gains in the House of Councillors election in summer 2013, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Abe can be a successful prime minister. If he leads as he did in his first term, however, he will likely continue Japan’s recent trend of changing prime ministers about as often as Americans buy Christmas trees.

Robert Pekkanen is an Associate Professor in the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.