National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Voter apathy can threaten democracy

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

On April 17 the Asahi Shimbun reviewed the results of various local elections that had taken place the day before. The main story was not who got voted in or out, but whether or not anyone cared.

The mayor of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, was returned for a fourth term with a turnout of 58 percent, the lowest ever; Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture had a turnout of only 38 percent, also a new low, while Hino’s 37 percent in Tokyo set a new record as well. The rare “high” turnouts — 72 percent in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, and 77 percent in Bungo Ono, Oita Prefecture, were still the lowest in their respective histories. There were more than a few races that weren’t races at all, since they consisted of only one candidate. In many instances, the municipalities in question didn’t even bother to hold elections. Why waste taxpayers’ money?

Voter apathy is not exclusive to Japan — Donald Trump essentially became the U.S. president because of it — but the reasons for lack of interest in the political process in Japan may be different than they are in other countries.

In a post about low voting rates, President magazine columnist Toshihiko Maita cited on his personal blog a survey that found 86 percent of young people in Japan “don’t trust the government,” while only 55 percent of older people said the same thing. Conventional wisdom holds that people who don’t like the government in a democracy will do what they can to change it by replacing those in power with someone else via elections.

In Japan, young people don’t vote as much as older people do. According to Maita’s blog, the voting rate for the cohort that was able to vote right after World War II has remained more or less constant over the years, while that for subsequent generations has dropped steadily. According to an expert in an April 2 Tokyo Shimbun feature, the experience of living under de facto military rule made people appreciate the idea of an elected government. As older generations die out, overall voting rates decline because younger generations don’t see the point. A lack of confidence in the government doesn’t lead them to do something about it because cynicism about the political process is built into their world view. That’s why the same politicians win over and over again. Only people who think they have something at stake vote.

The most closely watched poll on April 16 was Toyama’s, in which the entire city assembly as well as the mayor’s seat was up for grabs. Last fall, a number of assembly members from various parties — mostly from the majority Liberal Democratic Party — admitted to forging expense receipts and pocketing reimbursements for personal use. Fourteen resigned and a by-election was held Nov. 16 to fill those seats. Seven others who also misused funds, all LDP members, did not resign.

The turnout for the by-election was 27 percent. The Asahi Shimbun thought that LDP supporters, disappointed by the scandal, didn’t bother to show up. Those who won were either from non-LDP parties or independents, five of whom were endorsed by the LDP. Despite no dedicated LDP candidates, the party retained majority control of the 38-seat assembly.

Then on April 16, the LDP strengthened its majority, despite the fact that the turnout was 48 percent, 5 percentage points lower than the last city election in 2013. More interestingly, the LDP members who won — all incumbents, including a few caught up in the expenses scandal — polled fewer votes than they had in the past.

Asahi’s Toyama edition reported that the candidate who received the most votes, incumbent Yukari Akaboshi of the Japan Communist Party, benefited from the scandal backlash, but her popularity hurt other JCP candidates. Only one garnered enough votes to get a seat. The system in Toyama is such that voters choose one candidate, and the top vote-getters win. According to Asahi’s analysis, Akaboshi’s higher name recognition meant that people inclined to vote for someone from the JCP (which prosecuted the LDP scandal in the assembly) overwhelmingly voted for her. As a result, the JCP, which used to hold four seats in the assembly, lost two, meaning they no longer have enough to ask questions during debates. By contrast, all three candidates from the Social Democratic Party won because the party, endorsed by local labor unions, made sure supporters spread their votes among the three.

Nevertheless, it was the LDP that benefited the most, despite the general population’s disillusionment with the party. Media coverage focused on LDP candidate Kiyonori Yoshizaki, one of the politicians disgraced in the scandal. He campaigned by, in his own words, concentrating “on the issues as a real assemblyperson,” but lost anyway. Another tainted LDP member also lost, but four others who admitted to wrongdoing were re-elected. More to the point, two dozen independents endorsed by the LDP won seats, despite the fact that the 27 LDP-endorsed candidates received 34,000 fewer votes than the 28 LDP-endorsed candidates received in 2013.

So despite the fact that a large number of LDP assemblypersons were caught abusing their positions and the party garnered fewer votes than they ever have, the LDP in Toyama is now more powerful than ever. Is this situation solely due to voter apathy? Does it prove that political cynicism is deeper than the media admits? Is the opposition just hopelessly, irreversibly clueless?

The only thing we can say is that voter turnout will get worse before it gets better. Tokyo Shimbun reported that an estimated 2.4 million eligible voters were unable to cast ballots in the last general election due to age. These people are over 80 and because of infirmities they were unable to go to polling places to vote, though they wanted to. When this cohort was in their 60s and 70s their turnout rate was around 80 percent, but it was only 47 percent in the Upper House election of 2016.

Some local governments are trying to pass laws that allow shut-ins to vote at home or in care facilities, which will only help until that layer of citizens is gone. Until younger people see a reason for showing up at the voting booth, nothing much is going to change.

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