Monday, April 28, 2008

Yamaguchi By-Election Revisited, with Some of Its Implications

Hideo Hiraoka, the DPJ candidate, wins the House of Representatives by-election for the Yamaguchi Prefecture 2nd District seat by a hefty margin of 116,348 to 94,404. A DPJ victory had been the closest thing to a sure thing, with the virtual incumbency of Mr. Hiraoka and the absence of a Communist Party candidate figuring substantially in the outcome. But the unusually high turnout for a by-election (69.00% of eligible voters, was only lower 3.45% lower than the 72.45% district turnout in the 2005 general election) and the results from the exit polls show that the troubled rollout of the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance System, as well as the road money issues, took a heavy toll on the LDP-New Komeito candidate*.

A robust and appealing fiscal reform package is the only thing that can raise Prime Minister Fukuda’s political fortunes. But that requires going up against powerful vested interests, a daunting task for a politically weakened, consensus-oriented Prime Minister.

Within the media, even the reliably pro-establishment Yomiuri appears to be slipping off the Fukuda bandwagon. Reports indicate that the DPJ will ease up a bit to ensure that the Fukuda administration will die a slow and politically painful death. This all means that the mainstream media will give increased coverage to speculation over the succession within the LDP, as the prospects of a snap election under Mr. Fukuda fades away.

Three related items: First, the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance System requires the insured to pay roughly 10% of the costs, with 40% coming from other public pension systems and 50% from government revenues. The DPJ wants to eliminate the 10% insurance premium, and its representatives are repeating their by now-familiar mantra that the money will come out of unidentified savings on public expenditures. Now I beg to differ with the DPJ’s suggestion that there is enough government fat to finance its multitrillion commitment to pensioners present and future, small-scale farmers, car drivers, and now the late-term elderly, and hold the line on the ever-growing public debt. But it is tempting to see what it could do, relatively free of the pork-barrel vested interests that encrust the political establishment, on the cost-cutting side.

Second, the substantial boost that the Communist party gave to the DPJ candidate by staying out highlights the importance of the interaction between discontent and the opposition parties. Here, microparties, as well as to a lesser extent the Communist Party, face a dilemma. They all want to topple the LDP (since they remember what happened to the Socialists the last time they slept with the enemy), but they don’t want to be the schmear on the bagel when the DPJ pulls up to the breakfast table. Sure, the DPJ will yield a few districts here and there to Socialist and other fellow traveler-party candidates. But that is no assurance that any of them will be the first past the stile. More importantly, a wholesale shift of the discontents to the DPJ—and that’s what it’s going to look like if and when the DPJ wins an HR general election—means that the little guys will be starved for votes in the (mostly) multi-prefecture proportional districts, where party-name write-in plays a crucial role. When elephants…

Third, if it was obvious even to an outsider like me that Mr. Yamamoto was a goner from the git-go, why did the LDP fail to portray him as the underdog, something which would have taken the pressure off the two national issues in the event of the loss? This may be a small matter compared to the botched Insurance System rollout, but it adds to the impression of a political party without a game plan. After all, it did become an national event.

* It is impossible to make an estimate of the relative effects of the various factors without access to the full results of exit polls. It is pretty clear that Representative-elect Hiraoka got a big push from the discontent vote and that the absence of a Communist Party candidate helped him substantially in that respect. The hardcopy Yomiuri does give us some figures from its exit poll covering 1,607 voters at 48 voting stations. Here’s what it has to say:

The most important issue in the election: public pensions and medical care 38%; the economy 15%; gasoline taxes and other matters regarding the road money 14%; (income and regional?) disparities 6%; Prices 3%; national security and diplomacy 3%; no answer 21%. Of the 38% who answered public pensions and medical care, 67% voted for Mr. Hiraoka, while 29% voted for Shigetaro Yamamoto, the LDP-New Komeito candidate.

Party preferences: LDP - 25% Hiraoka, 72% Yamamoto; New Komeito - about 20% Hiraoka, under 80% Yamamoto; Communist Party - over 90% Hiraoka; no preference – Hiraoka 73%, Yamamoto 21%. The report mentions that in the 2005 election, a little under 60% of Communist supporters voted for the Communist candidate, while the LDP and DPJ candidates each got about 20% of their votes.

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