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Low voter turnout mars Abe’s claim of election triumph

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The day after Sunday’s Lower House election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was looking triumphant.

He told a news conference he had won a new, stronger voter mandate, trumpeting the 1 million extra ballots his Liberal Democratic Party secured this time compared with the previous election in 2012.

“Voters now expect much more from us to keep moving forward by maintaining political stability,” Abe said.

But is that true?

One might draw a different conclusion when comparing figures from the 2009, 2012 and 2014 Lower House elections.

Voters can cast two ballots, one for a single-seat constituency candidate and one for a registered political party. In Sunday’s election, the LDP won 290 seats in the 475-seat chamber by receiving 43.12 million votes in the single-seat constituencies and proportional representation districts.

The figure is up nearly 1 million from the 42.23 million votes the party won in the 2012 election, as Abe pointed out.

But the 2014 figure is still far smaller than the number it received in the 2009 election, which it lost in a crushing defeat by the Democratic Party of Japan. The LDP won 46.11 million votes in the 2009 election and yet only 119 of the 480 seats available at that time.

What explains this apparent contradiction?

“That’s because the voter turnout rate has fallen sharply,” said Takeshi Sasaki, a professor emeritus of political science at University of Tokyo.

Sunday’s election, like the previous 2012 poll, renewed the lowest-ever turnout rate, which presumably benefited the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition. The two parties have more core supporters than opposition parties, which depend more on swing voters.

The turnout rate was 52.66 percent in single-seat constituencies in Sunday’s election, while the 2009 election saw the highest-ever rate of 69.28 percent.

In Sunday’s election, the combined number of voter abstentions for single-seat constituencies and proportional presentation districts surged to 98.45 million from 63.88 million in 2009.

In addition, 3.2 million invalid votes were cast in the latest election, while the corresponding figure in the 2009 poll stood at 3.06 million. Many of the invalid votes were probably a protest vote registering unhappiness with all registered candidates and parties.

Those figures suggest the LDP won big this time largely thanks to voters’ disappointment with opposition parties — or even with all of the country’s politicians in general — rather than a strong preference for the LDP itself.

The results of an opinion poll conducted by daily Yomiuri Shimbun on Monday and Tuesday back up this theory.

The survey found 65 percent of 1,078 respondents said the LDP won a big victory because it was “less unsatisfactory” than other parties; 55 percent said they wished the LDP had won fewer seats.

The DPJ ran the administration from 2009 through 2012, but committed blunders in diplomacy and broke its election promises, including a pledge to cut the size of government and find savings.

“Voters saw what the DPJ actually did (while in power) and now have tougher views on opposition parties,” Sasaki said.

Voters thus have been disillusioned about opposition parties and “just reconfirmed the status quo” in this election, he said.

Sasaki also said few candidates or parties during the campaigning addressed solutions to fundamental problems such as how to deal with the country’s snowballing government debt.