Shinzo Abe’s Election Win Is Not as Impressive as It Seems

Shinzo Abe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have won a huge mandate in this month’s Japanese elections: his right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) captured 284 of the 465 seats from the lower house of Parliament (or Diet, as it is called in Japan).

Together with his partners in the Komeito party (which captured 29 seats), Abe’s coalition will retain its supermajority. Abe intends to use his “mandate” to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, among other things.

For those of us concerned with Japan’s future and who would like to see Japan retain Article 9 (the constitutional provision renouncing war), Abe’s electoral victory is depressing (but not unexpected) news. The LDP has dominated Japanese politics for decades.

However, there are some very important facts that should not be overlooked — Abe’s victory is not as impressive as it appears. First, voter turnout was 54 percent, the second lowest of the postwar period. (The lowest voter turnout was in the last election in 2014, at 53 percent.)

Second, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, disbanded less than a month before the election. Its more conservative members flocked to the new “reformist” conservative Party of Hope founded by Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, while its liberal members founded the new Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP). There was no clear, unified opposition to Abe.

Most importantly, however, is how Japan’s electoral system favors the LDP.

Members of Japan’s Parliament are elected using a mixture of two systems — one based on single-seat constituencies, and the other based on proportional representation. Of the 465 seats available, 289 are elected based on single-seat constituencies, while 176 are elected based on the proportional system.

In the single-seat constituency system, each voter chooses their preferred candidate, and whichever one gets the most votes wins (a winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system). The voter then casts a second ballot for their preferred party to represent their region; these votes are allocated proportionally.

Not surprisingly, of the 176 seats allocated for the proportional vote, the results roughly reflect the popular will: the LDP received 33 percent of the vote, and captured 66 of these seats, or 38 percent of the seats.

Among the single-seat constituency seats, however, the LDP captured 48 percent of the vote — and managed to win 218 seats, or 75 percent of these seats, a huge mismatch. This is partially because the LDP does better in rural areas, and thus can rack up more seats with fewer votes, but mostly it is due to the winner-take-all system.

If we combine the figures, we find the LDP won 61 percent of the total seats based on 41 percent of the votes cast. If we add in Abe’s Komeito allies, the governing right-wing coalition won its supermajority of 313 seats — 67 percent — based on less than half the vote, 48 percent. And remember, half of Japan’s voters didn’t even bother to turn out.

The left-of-center parties — the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party — captured a combined total of 69 seats, or 15 percent. This is despite winning 29 percent of the proportional vote and 19 percent of the single-seat constituency vote, or (combining them) 24 percent of the votes cast.

Koike’s Party of Hope and her coalition partners won 61 seats (13 percent) based on a combined total of 24 percent of the vote.

The remaining 22 candidates elected are independents.

If there’s one silver lining to this, it may be the Constitutional Democratic Party. It will be the second largest party and with its left-of-center allies will now constitute the main opposition to the LDP. The fact it picked up as many seats as it did despite not existing one month prior is impressive.

And, free from the conservative elements that helped constitute the Democratic Party, the CDP is now free to offer an unapologetic, unified progressive vision for Japan, which includes redistributing wealth, phasing out nuclear power, and opposing any revision of Article 9.