How people elect parliaments
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called a snap early election for the Shugi-in, the lower House of the Japanese parliament – but don’t expect a normal contest.
The election will be held on Sunday 22 October
Recent North Korea tensions have lifted the public approval rating of the prime minister from around 30% to around 45% – prompting the PM to rush to the polls – and support for the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to over 40%. But support for the opposition Democratic Party languishes at less than 10% approval in the polls.
So where has the rest of public opinion gone? According to compilations of recent polls a volatile mass of at least 40% and up to 65% of the electorate are telling Japanese pollsters that they support ‘no party’.
The Shugiin – the lower house of the Japanese parliament – in session
For years Japanese governments have struggled to stabilize the nation’s economy, so it is hardly surprising that even the ever-dominant governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) can’t hold on to solid public support.
The LDP has governed Japan almost continuously since reconstruction after the Second World War. Only twice has their public standing fallen so low that voters have – briefly – flirted with any non-LDP government. Only once – in 2009 – has a non-LDP majority been elected to control of the Shugi-in.
If the recent polls are right, the current electoral system should guarantee the LDP a landslide win in terms of seat numbers.
The Shugi-in electoral system is highly distortionary in favour of the leading party, a situation that sustains – and is no doubt preferred by – the LDP as the nation’s dominant political party.
For some decades until the 1990s the Shugi-in was elected using the SNTV voting system, in which each voter cast a single vote for one candidate but with the result of electing multiple members in the electoral divisions.
The SNTV system could in theory have led to a diverse range of representatives, but it is not a system that yields particularly equal voter influence, nor party-proportionality. In practice, SNTV in Japan simply allowed the highly organized LDP and its candidates to develop local ‘client’ relationships prone to various exchanges in financial advantages between voter blocs and MPs.
From 1996 the system was changed so that the Shugi-in became a composite chamber using a ‘parallel’ model, in which around 63% of the seats are elected in single-member divisions with plurality voting (ie: first past the post), while the remaining 37% are allocated proportionally to political parties according to their overall vote share in 11 larger regional electoral divisions.
However as each of the 11 regions is dealt with separately, the aggregate of the seats awarded through the party-proportional seat allocations in each of the regional districts does not necessarily result in party-proportionality to each party’s overall national vote share.
More importantly – unlike the German electoral system used last Sunday, or other systems of party-proportional seat allocation – the parallel system does not ensure even approximate seat-vote proportionality in the full assembly.
At the coming election the 176 party list seats will simply be added to the 289 local division MPs, making up a composite Shugi-in of 465 members.
The additional party appointees will be drawn from ‘closed lists’, so voters cannot directly influence who is appointed as the additional members.
Japan had a long tradition of rural-favouring malapportionment in its electoral districts, but this also was also largely reformed in the 1990s. Yet as recently as 2015 the nation’s Supreme Court declared that the plurality districts varied so much in population numbers that they were ‘in a state of unconstitutionality’. Rather lamely, the Court did not rule the previous elections invalid.
The local division boundaries have recently been redistributed, so for the first time ever, at least Japan’s plurality seats will not be elected against a background of substantial malapportionment. But because they are still single member divisions, this itself will not prevent major distortions in voters’ equality of influence on the election outcome.
Another intriguing electoral reform is that the voting age has been dropped from 20 to 18, meaning that a large cohort of voters who were aged 15 to 19 at the 2014 elections will now vote for the first time.
The arrival of these younger voters may temporarily arrest a decline in Japanese participation in their elections. The Japanese electorate appears not only to be frustrated with current political parties, but with voting altogether.
The Japanese population peaked in 2008, and is now falling slightly. Electoral registrations also peaked in 2009 at just under 102 million voters, but by 2014 had fallen by around a million people.
Election turnout also peaked at the 2009 elections, at 70 million votes, before falling at the 2012 and 2014 elections, with the most recent poll seeing just 53 million voters turn out.
Japanese voter support for the main political parties, 1996-2014 (votes cast in regional party-proportional electoral divisions)
Support for the LPD in the large-region party proportional voting has been fairly consistent over the past two decades, ranging generally in a band between 16 million and 20 million votes, with a brief surge to 25 million votes in 2005 (shown in the dark green base area in the chart above).
Support for governing partner the New Komeito party (yellow in the chart) has also been quite stable, at between 7 and 9 million votes from 2003 to 2014.
But support for the opposition Democratic party (blue) has cartwheeled, ranging from around 9 million votes up to 29 million votes for their only electoral success in 2009. In 2012 the party’s support crashed down again to 9 million votes, where it remained in 2014.
The remainder of Japanese votes over the past two decades have been fragmented among a mutating collection of opposition parties, together with some parties supporting the LDP.
The confused situation assists the LDP, which (apart from their 2009 election debacle) generally win enough of the plurality district seats to be assured of government regardless of how the national party-proportional votes (and seats) fall out.
In the local electoral divisions, the LDP and Democracy parties score higher shares of the vote, since voters know that any minor party candidates they prefer will have little chance of success.
Abe’s popularity has swung wildly in the past year in a range between 30% support and (more recently) up to nearly 50% support.
Yet in recent elections, LDP’s voter base appears to be relatively solid – if diminished somewhat on past decades – whereas opposition party support in the electorate is divided and relatively unreliable.
In the current political and international climate, there seems to be little reason to expect any sudden restoration in the fortunes of a unified opposition party capable of making much progress in the all-important plurality seats.
Further mass abstention at next month’s poll will presumably assist the governing LDP, assuming its diminishing body of supporters still turnout.
Since LDP can expect to win a landslide of the 289 local seats (at least on current polling), they are pretty much guaranteed a sizeable majority on October 22.
Unless, that is, lurking out in the volatile intentions of nearly half the electorate is a willingness to coalesce behind an alternative.