National

ELECTION '04

Independent voters growing in power

Electorate becoming more selective as big parties court the 'unaffiliated'

Former Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima still believes in the power of independent voters.

Running as an independent in the July 11 House of Councilors election from the Tokyo electoral district, Aoshima has launched a “street-preaching” campaign, standing on a beer-bottle case and criticizing the government over its pension reform scheme and participation in a U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.

“If the Upper House had functioned properly, all the problems — including pension reform — would have been thoroughly deliberated and (government-sponsored bills) possibly voted down,” Aoshima told The Japan Times, lamenting the upper chamber’s loss, as its members act in a partisan manner, of its original role as a check for the more powerful House of Representatives

“As an independent candidate, I can make a really good case for myself as to how each and every Upper House member should work regardless of party affiliation to build ‘the House of Common Sense.’ “

Aoshima’s goal is to engage the so-called unaffiliated voters — people who vote for candidates regardless of party affiliation.

In 1995, Aoshima and “Knock” Yokoyama, another TV personality-turned-politician, shocked the political establishment by winning the Tokyo and Osaka gubernatorial races. Their victories over contenders running on the tickets of major parties were attributed to the power of swing voters who defied partisan politics and established parties.

Ten years later, Aoshima, lacking any organized support, said he welcomes the ongoing trend of voters’ diminishing political affiliations.

Whether the 71-year-old Aoshima is still relevant today may be another story. He is one of 11 candidates competing for four seats allocated to the Tokyo constituency.

Major political parties are now eager to woo unaffiliated voters, who are believed to sway election results, particularly at a time when the parties can’t rely as heavily as they once did on organizedvotes from labor unions and industry associations.

“The Liberal Democratic Party is no exception,” said Akikazu Hashimoto, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, even though many LDP members still think that the lower the voter turnout, the better the results will be for the LDP, because a lower turnout would mean fewer unaffiliated voters casting ballots.

Generally speaking, unaffiliated voters are more likely to support the opposition as a means of saying “no” to the party in power.

Just before the June 2000 House of Representatives election, then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori remarked that people who were still undecided on who to vote for would be better off sleeping at home than going to the polling stations.

The gaffe met with widespread criticism and — whether or not as a result of Mori’s remark — voter turnout in the 2000 election reached 62.49 percent, surpassing the 59.65 percent in the previous election in 1996, and the LDP suffered a major setback.

In recent years, the number of people who say they support a particular political party has shown a steady decline.

According to a poll published June 25 by the Asahi Shimbun, 43 percent of the respondents said they support no single party — eclipsing the 27 percent who said they support the LDP and 18 who supported the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

And their presence can be a threat to the ruling parties. According to a survey conducted jointly by the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law and the Asahi Shimbun, 40 percent of those who said they didn’t support any party voted for the DPJ in proportional representation blocs in the House of Representatives election last November, while 13 percent voted for the LDP and 31 percent either cast invalid votes or didn’t bother to vote at all.

Organized voting is on the wane.

In the 2001 Upper House election, Taiju, a core LDP support group consisting of retired chiefs of “tokutei” designated post offices, secured 480,000 votes for Kenji Koso, a former head of the Kinki Postal Administration Office who successfully ran on the LDP ticket. But the figure was much lower than the 1 million votes that Taiju garnered for a candidate it supported in the 1980 Upper House election.

The Japan Association for the Bereaved Families of the War Dead gathered about 260,000 votes for a candidate backed by the group in 2001 — down sharply from some 920,000 in 1980.

An LDP candidate supported by the Japan Medical Association, another core LDP support group consisting of self-employed clinical practitioners and physicians employed by hospitals, captured 230,000 votes in the 2001 race — compared with some 830,000 the association gathered in 1980.

The opposition camp is facing the same problem, with labor unions suffering from falling membership and declining political loyalty among its members.

The 6.8-million strong Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), a major supporter of the DPJ, set a target of collecting 5 million votes for Rengo-backed candidates on the DPJ ticket in the 2001 election. As it turned out, Rengo gathered only 1.69 million votes for nine candidates, six of whom won Upper House seats.

“We must realize that we have neglected efforts to widen the scope of our supporters” outside of the party’s traditional core support bases, LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe said.

“We’d like to reach out more to young people and the so-called unaffiliated voters,” he said in a recent interview.

Abe cited as an example the LDP’s decision to field Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka as a proportional representation candidate. The party expects Takenaka to explain in plain language to the public the importance and fruits of reform initiatives undertaken by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe said.

DPJ President Katsuya Okada said unaffiliated voters are “highly politically minded” and do not represent any group tied to a specific political interest.

“It’s important for us to bring up convincing policy proposals to measure up to the expectations of (those voters),” Okada said.

“We’re going to inform them about our policies in a sincere manner so that (we can convince them) that Japan can change if the DPJ comes to power.”

Hashimoto said unaffiliated voters in Japan have changed over the years.

When Aoshima was elected Tokyo governor in 1995, he engaged only in minimal campaign activity — publicly funded TV speeches.

“Aoshima won the gubernatorial race without lifting a finger and simply by promising the Tokyo electorate to disclose (the metropolitan government’s expense and other) information” as well as to scrap the World City Expo, Hashimoto said. “And that led to more than 1.7 million votes cast for Aoshima.”

But now more and more unaffiliated voters have grown politically mature and scrutinize policy proposals and manifestos by politicians and political parties, instead of voting irresponsibly for political mavericks as a means of punishing the establishment, Hashimoto said.

As an indication of the maturity of swing voters, Hashimoto cited the declining number of votes cast for so-called celebrity candidates.

In the 2001 election, Kyosen Ohashi, a popular TV celebrity running on the DPJ’s proportional representation ticket, captured 410,000 votes, but the figure rates poorly against the 2.2 million obtained by Aoshima in the 1980 Upper House election under a similar voting system.

According to Hashimoto, there are basically two types of unaffiliated voters: ones who have no interest in politics, and an emerging new type who are interested in politics and act realistically when it comes to voting — either by casting a ballot or abstaining from voting depending on their expectations in each election.

In 2001, many of the latter supported Koizumi — believing his word that he would “destroy the LDP” saddled with vested interests to carry out painful reform — instead of voting for the DPJ, which was still seen as incompetent to take office.

“Now the voters have matured to the extent that they can endure certain pain as long as politicians keep their word,” Hashimoto said.

Therefore, Koizumi has lost their support over pension reform, which was touted as secure for the next 100 years but turned out to be a mere scheme to raise premiums and cut benefits, while the DPJ has gained support with its own version of a pension overhaul that includes introduction of a new 3 percent indirect tax, he said in reference to recent trends in media opinion polls.

“The important thing is for politicians to present voters with policy proposals without hiding information,” Hashimoto said.

“Eventually, both the LDP and the DPJ will be left without (reliable) solid votes,” he said. “And more and more unaffiliated voters will come to decide which party to support, depending on how politicians carry out their manifestos and campaign pledges.”

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