There are many possible outcomes to the next Lower House general election, and the eventual shape of the emerging regime—anything from a continuation of the Fukuda adminstration to a single-party, Ozawa Cabinet—as well as the resultant policy directions are so varied that it will be a waste of my time and yours to indulge in speculations in the here and now. I did look at some numbers in the last two Lower House elections, but that did little more than to confirm that the Koizumi victory in 2005 was first and foremost an urban, progressive phenomenon. That may not be news to you, but I’m posting this anyway, since I spent a godly amount of time on it. I did figure out some of the basics of the Excel spreadsheet, so all was not lost.
Enough with the digressions.
Japan is no exception to the rule that the left does better in urban elections. The power of the old Socialists—once the main, if eternal, opposition—and Communists as well as the horde of kakushin governors and mayors that once graced the political landscape was concentrated in the metropolitan centers like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kanagawa. The DPJ has tried with to assume that reformist role, with an added dash of realism that the Socialists never managed to muster until it went overboard under its only Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama. It has seen its greatest electoral success in the 2001 and 2007 Upper House elections.
The DPJ has been less successful in the Lower House. Although it gained further credibility from the results of the 2003 Lower House election, it ran into the Koizumi juggernaut in 2005 when the LDP usurped the opposition’s prerogative and successfully ran against itself. Let’s take a look back on the past to see if I can find anything to shed light on the upcoming Lower House election.
First, let’s look at the single-seat districts in the metropolitan centers, taking the ten most populous provinces (from north to south: Hokkaido, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Tokyo, Shizuoka, Aichi, Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka) as a proxy. This Top 10 currently holds 148 single-seat districts (up from 147 in the 2003 election), or almost one-half of the 300 available nationwide.
In the 2003 Lower House general election, the DPJ won 73 of the 147 single-seat districts in the Top 10, while the LDP only managed to capture 61. Its then-coalition partners Komeito and the Conservatives won 7 and 3 seats respectively, while 3 independents supporting the ruling coalition also won, so the ruling coalition did manage to maintain a razor-thin 74-to-73 edge over the DPJ*.
The national tally was a different story, with LDP 168, Komeito 9, and Conservatives 4 for a total of 181 for the ruling coalition against DPJ 105 and others 3 for a total of 108 for the opposition. In the non-Top 10 provinces, the ruling coalition trounced the DPJ 107 to 32.
Fast forward to the 2005 Lower House general election. This time, the ruling coalition won the Top Ten by the incredible margin of 122 (LDP 114, Komeito 8) to the DPJ’s 24. That was a 97-seat turnaround from the 2003 election. The national tally was 227 (219, 8) to 52, a 175-seat margin, which meant that the non-Top Ten margin was 78, a figure very close to the 2003 edge of 75. The battle for the conservative mantle between the Post-Office rebels and their assassins must have helped a few DPJ candidates squeak through, but it is clear that the DPJ lost the 2005 election first and foremost in the Top Ten provinces—my proxy for the metropolitan centers. The boondocks vote appears to have been far more consistent, although the existence of reelected independents among the Post Office rebels complicates the issue looking ahead—11 have since been readmitted to the LDP and one votes with the coalition.
In order to win the next Lower House general election, the DPJ must not only win back the vast floater vote in the metropolitan centers, but also some of the conservative voters who have consistently voted for the LDP. The first task—reversing the 2005 debacle—looks fairly easy as of now. The typical urban floater is a progressive. The floater wants change. Change won the 2005 election for Mr. Koizumi, change boosts Osaka Governor Hashimoto’s popularity into the 80-percentile range. The public perception of the ruling coalition’s ineptitude and indifference is such that the DPJ is likely to be able to reverse the 2005 results and more by merely being the not-the-LDP.
Prime Minister Fukuda’s poll numbers are all stuck in the low thirties and the twenties, including the one metropolitan poll taken weekly and publicly available, and nothing looks likely to lift his prospects significantly between now and September 2009, when the current term for the Lower House members expires.. The LDP shares his misery, yet no one in the LDP is mounting a serious challenge to his leadership, such that it is. All we hear are a cacophony of voices pointing in many directions—the LDP itself looks just as bad as Mr. Fukuda, if not worse. Thus, DPJ’s prospects are much brighter than in 2003, when it managed to maintain much of the momentum that it gained in the 2001 Upper House election victory.
However, knocking off incumbents in the more provincial districts will be a much harder task. There is much more inertia in the boondocks, a greater sense of loyalty. Indeed some DPJ elders are themselves beneficiaries of this electoral conservatism. It is in the context of this electoral necessity that boondoggle proposals such as the trillion-yen giveaway to smallholder farmers, the termination of the gasoline-tax surcharge, and the reversion of the old-age medical care system can best be understood. The tactical decision to back the People’s New Party’s demands to revisit the privatization of the Post Office system conveniently fits into this retrogressive strategy for the less-urbanized electoral districts.
Will this urban-rural, progressive-retrogressive straddle work? After all, the LDP has been playing that game much longer than the DPJ. Specifically, will the DPJ be able to win a majority without help from the Komeito or LDP dissidents? Your guess is at least as good as mine**.
* Note that Komeito (as well as the Conservatives, now merged into the LDP) carried those single-seat districts only because the LDP threw its support in those districts. This is important to remember when considering post-election realignment possibilities.
** The 81 first-term members, the Koizumi Kids, are considered the ripest for picking. However, the effect of eventual losses among their ranks can be exaggerated. The most vulnerable ones lost their single-seat elections but slipped in by way of the proportional districts or hadn’t stood for election in a single-seat district in the first place. They will next be standing in single-seat districts with opposition (usually DPJ) incumbents. In net terms, they will be part of a relatively small drop-off in the LDP proportional seat representation, since overall swing in proportional district representations is by nature much smaller than the single seat swing. To gauge their vulnerability and the net effect of their eventual election results requires a careful examination of individual circumstances. (Don’t they all…)