Commentary

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

by Robert Pekkanen
December 18, 2012

Robert Pekkanen (University of Washington) dissects the results of Japan’s recent general election and explains how the LDP won such a resounding victory despite receiving fewer votes and less support than in the 2009 election it lost.

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