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‘Telepolitics,’ polls shake up status quo

by Reiji Yoshida

Japanese politics has been in a chaotic state for the past few years, perplexing millions of voters. The country has seen four prime ministers in the past three years, and the latest — Taro Aso — could be forced out if the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, grabs power in the Aug. 30 election.

A victory would terminate the almost-unbroken 54-year postwar rule of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Observers say against the backdrop of this political instability is the LDP’s gradual decline following the end, in the 1990s, of Japan’s extended postwar economic growth.

The increasing need for telegenic charm and ever more sophisticated and frequent opinion polls over the past several years is further destabilizing the power structure of Japanese politics, they say.

“It’s synergetic effects,” said Masao Matsumoto, a Saitama University professor and leading expert on opinion poll methodology.

The professor said that as the LDP’s grip on power continues to weaken, Diet members are overreacting to media polls to cater to voters.

“In a time of political instability, they don’t have anything they can rely on, except for popularity as shown in media polls,” he said.

The LDP was established in 1955. Until the mid-1990s its grip on power was firm, allowing Japan to enjoy exceptionally stable politics compared with the rest of postwar Asia.

According to Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan, the LDP retained wide support in various quarters by maintaining a big-government policy.

“The LDP is a conservative party, which usually advocates a small-government policy. But the LDP was a catch-all party and advocated a big government and welfare-oriented state. That’s the reason why the party has had wide support among voters since its establishment in 1955,” he said.

Shiratori said that, in theory at least, a catch-all party is impossible to sustain given the inherent conflicts of interest it generates, such as between producers and consumers, or urban and rural voters.

But the LDP-led government won support by using pork-barrel politics funded by tax revenues that continued to rise with Japan’s rapid growth after the war, Shiratori said.

The LDP’s formula for success, however, lost its validity during the economic decline of the ’90s as the government started whittling down the budget, Shiratori said.

In a symbolic move, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was in office from 2001 to 2006, introduced a fiscal policy that obliges the government to cut public works spending by 3 percent each year. This has resulted in considerable damage to the regional economies, which are traditionally among the LDP’s strongest support bases.

Koizumi also established a rule to curb social security spending by ¥220 billion each year, a move that angered another traditional LDP support group: doctors associations.

“Prime Minister Koizumi has abandoned the big-government policy, prompting voters to flock to the DPJ, which now says it puts top priority on people’s lives and social safety nets. In that sense, Koizumi has destroyed the LDP and its support base,” Shiratori said.

Koizumi, known for his powerful communication skills and sound bite laden speeches, is often described as the first Japanese political leader who fully utilized the power of television.

Observers say he kicked off the era of “telepolitics” in Japan, which further destabilized the system.

Telepolitics refers to the influence that sound bites has on voters. But instant and often superficial reactions on the part of voters can also shape politicians’ behavior.

“Since Koizumi, TV stations and other media companies have all started trying to sell news (on politics) as entertainment,” said Iwao Osaka, assistant professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and a leading expert on telepolitics in Japan.

Osaka said the arrival of telepolitics coincided with a revolution in opinion polls technology.

Around 2001, when Koizumi debuted as prime minister, all of the major Japanese newspapers began using so-called random digit dialing to conduct their opinion polls. In this method, computers randomly generate phone numbers and pollsters keep calling until they have secured a large enough sample of voters.

Previously, poll results were gathered based on costly and time-consuming interviews.

To conduct an interview-based survey, at least 3,000 voters had to be chosen in advance, with at least two to three weeks required to get the results published in a newspaper. Thus, in the 1990s, major newspapers conducted polls only several times a year.

But now, major newspapers conduct opinion polls each month using RDD. They also conduct additional surveys to instantly gauge every major political event, such as a gaffe by a prime minister or a scandal in the Cabinet.

“Now media firms can conduct a poll instantly whenever they want to do so. . . . It has considerably changed the course of politics,” professor Matsumoto of Saitama University said.

In fact, Fukuda, Abe and Aso all lost political clout in the LDP each time a low opinion poll disgraced their Cabinets. Each result fueled fears that they would be ousted in the next election.

“Politicians have become too sensitive about opinion polls. They now rely too much on them” in making decisions, Matsumoto said.

The RDD method also enabled the politicians to conduct their own polls so they can cater to voters’ changing sentiments, the professor pointed out.

According to a July 22 report by the daily Sankei Shimbun, dozens of LDP members began an attempt to remove Aso as president last month after learning that the results of a secret poll conducted by the party suggested it would be able to win only 130 to 150 seats in the Lower House election.

Losing over half the party’s 303 seats would allow the DPJ to control the powerful chamber and unseat the LDP.

Both parties regularly conduct their own polls in each constituency, using them as a reference point for picking candidates and shaping policy.

“(The polls) have weakened the (policymaking) ability of the political parties. They are merely trying to rely on the popularity” of the party or each candidate after seeing the poll results, Matsumoto said.

Professor Osaka concurs, warning that a DPJ-led government might end up facing the same problems that the LDP did: fickle reactions magnified by frequent media polls, particularly in response to scandals involving its members.

The LDP, as an opposition party, would desperately try to exploit DPJ scandals as it did in 1993 and 1994 during its brief fall from power after the Lower House election, Osaka said.

“The DPJ has yet to have a solid support base of voters,” Osaka said. “The party could quickly lose the support of the people once it starts losing its popularity.”