‘Theater politics’ key to poll shift

Swing among urbanites partly down to 'actors,' drama

by Reiji Yoshida

The 296 seats won by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Sunday’s general election comes second only to the 300 Lower House seats it secured in the 1986 election.

But the forces that propelled the LDP to Sunday’s stunning victory in the House of Representatives race were quite different from those the party had at its command in the 1980s, which for some made the landslide victory even more shocking.

This time, the LDP rode to power with the support of urban voters who had no party affiliation — the segment of the electorate long considered the last stronghold of the opposition parties.

Symbolic of this was the LDP’s virtual sweep of the 25 single-seat constituencies in Tokyo, winning 23 of them, while the Democratic Party of Japan only secured one. In the previous election in November 2003, both parties won 12 seats each.

Another way the new strength of the LDP can be measured is by looking at how it fared in the “No. 1 constituencies” of each prefecture. These usually cover the most developed areas of a prefecture and include its capital. The LDP took 32 No. 1 constituencies across the nation, up from 26 in the previous race, while the DPJ’s share fell to 13 from 19.

The DPJ had been consistently increasing its strength in the Diet since the general election of 1996, when it won 52 seats. But that myth of perpetual growth was shattered Sunday with a stunning loss of 64 seats.

Together with the 31 seats won by New Komeito, the LDP-led ruling coalition now occupies more than two-thirds of the 480-seat Lower House. With this strength, it can overturn any vote in the Upper House that kills a bill that already has been passed.

This means Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization bills, previously voted down by the Upper House, can be enacted even if they are spurned by the chamber again when the government resubmits them during a special Diet session expected to convene on Sept. 21.

In reality, however, the LDP’s Diet strength may not be as solid as it appears, largely due to the winner-takes-all system of the 300 single-seat constituencies.

Under that system, the party that wins is given a greater number of seats in proportion to the votes it receives. This means the results of an election can change dramatically even if the differential in votes is relatively small.

The LDP reportedly received 47 percent of total votes cast for single-seat constituency candidates across the country, while the DPJ won 36 percent.

But the DPJ won only 52 single-seat constituencies — or less than 25 percent of the LDP’s total of 219.

Ikuo Kabashima, a University of Tokyo professor and expert on election issues, said Koizumi’s stunning victory has taught political parties some crucial lessons that could greatly change the face of the nation’s politics through elections.

“The LDP now has come to realize that it can no longer survive without support in urban areas,” he said. “Koizumi has caught on to that very well.”

But to keep attracting unaffiliated urban voters, party leaders must be “great actors” with the skills to get their message across, he opined.

Kabashima said the prime minister succeeded in Sunday’s election because he presented his postal reforms in the form of a fast-paced drama that kept viewers on the edge of their seats, throwing in theatrics such as the fielding of “assassin” candidates against those LDP members who voted against the postal privatization bills.

“For better or worse, Japanese politics might become something more like ‘theater politics’ ” in the wake of Koizumi’s sweeping success, he said.

The election has also shown that the image and personality a leader conveys has become more important than ever for a party’s survival, the professor added.

“The DPJ is based in urban areas, too. If the DPJ learns these lessons, (the LDP and the DPJ) will compete with each other in choosing a party head and presenting (policy messages),” Kabashima predicted.