National / Politics

With pacifist Constitution at stake, apathy reigns in Japan ahead of Upper House election

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Politically speaking, the upcoming Upper House election is a huge deal for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After all, it’s a vote that could determine the fate of his long-held ambition to amend the postwar pacifist Constitution.

But voters, it seems, see Sunday’s poll as anything but crucial.

Surveys have pointed to lukewarm public interest in the race, prompting some political observers to predict Abe will survive the July 21 election relatively unscathed, benefiting yet again from his familiar recipe for victory: low voter turnout.

Although Sunday’s election could virtually ensure or doom Abe’s longtime drive to revise Article 9 of the Constitution, polls suggest the political significance of the election simply hasn’t sunk in with voters.

“Over the years, the Abe administration has accumulated experience winning national elections marked by low turnout,” said Ryosuke Nishida, an associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology who specializes in politics and the media. Sunday’s election, he added, is likely to follow the same pattern.

Nishida may be right.

An opinion poll released Monday by the influential Nikkei business daily shows 57 percent of voters will “definitely go” to the polls Sunday, down from 67 percent in its 2016 election survey and from 65 percent in the 2013 survey.

Since official turnout was a tepid 54.70 percent in 2016 and 52.61 percent in 2013, according to internal affairs ministry statistics, the turnout for this year’s Upper House election could be dismal.

Low turnout in Japan signals a lack of interest among swing voters and tends to benefit parties with a massive organizational voting apparatus in place, such as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Buddhist-backed Komeito.

According to an NHK survey earlier this month, constitutional revision is the fifth most important topic in the election at 8 percent, trailing such issues as social security (29 percent), and the economy (21 percent).

Hiroshi Miura, who runs Tokyo-based election consultancy Ask Co., agrees that constitutional revision is unlikely to send voters scrambling to cast ballots on Sunday.

Even issues that look damaging to Abe, including the controversy over the government’s alarming report on the national pension system, are unlikely to spur turnout because swing voters know the opposition doesn’t have any viable counterproposals to offer, Miura said.

This Diet saw the pension system re-enter the national spotlight after a Financial Services Agency panel released a report estimating elderly couples might need ¥20 million in savings for retirement.

Charging the report “misled” the public by painting a much grimmer picture of the pension system’s health than the government cares to admit, Finance Minister Taro Aso point-blank refused to even receive the FSA’s report, drawing the public’s ire.

The pension saga has “caused some voters to turn away from the LDP,” Miura acknowledged.

“This means they have become swing voters, but the likelihood is low that they will throw their support behind the opposition parties,” in light of the lack of counterproposals, he said.

It is possible these voters will simply refrain from voting altogether, Miura said. In fact, such detachment has fueled the Abe administration’s winning streak in national elections because their anti-LDP sentiment fails to translate into support for the opposition, he said.

Even if they do vote, the odds are higher that their resignation could even result in more ballots for the LDP, he said.

Fragmented and at times in disarray, the opposition is widely unpopular, with the latest NHK survey showing dismal support ratings for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (6.0 percent), the Democratic Party for the People (1.6 percent) and the Japanese Communist Party (2.9 percent), versus 33.4 percent for the LDP.

Even the second stage of the consumption tax hike planned for October — which Abe is pursuing despite pushback from the opposition — hasn’t done much to provoke rebellion against the LDP, Miura said, adding the backlash would likely be stronger if Abe delayed it a third time.

“All in all, this is an election with few issues that could prove a headache for Abe,” he said, estimating the ruling bloc will be able to bag as many as 75 of the 124 seats up for grabs, far higher than Abe’s self-declared goal of 53.

Cynicism is particularly strong among young voters.

A nationwide internet survey from May 31 to June 5 by the Nippon Foundation of 1,000 people in their late teens found 50.3 percent either “haven’t decided yet” or “have no intention” of voting Sunday, compared with 49.7 percent who said they “intend to go.” Among the reasons cited were poor knowledge of politics, a lack of appealing politicians and paperwork difficulties, the survey showed.

Experts say there is a mixed sense of complacency and resignation at play with young voters.

Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Nishida pointed out that today’s youth are politically inactive partly because they’re not seeking change in the first place and remain largely content with the state of politics under the Abe administration, which they credit with improving employment.

“So their mindset is, ‘Why bother to change our lives as they are now?'” he said.

In the meantime, Daigo Sato, head of the nonprofit youth empowerment group Dot-jp, said the predictable nature of the race “makes the young underestimate the value of their votes, leading them to believe that going to vote won’t make much difference anyway.”

Although the 2016 Upper House election — the first national poll since the voting age was lowered to 18 from 20 — saw a relatively high teen turnout rate of 46.78 percent, teen turnout for the 2017 Lower House election sank to 40.49 percent, according to the internal affairs ministry. Sato predicts it will dip even further this time around.

The widespread apathy is not a sentiment peculiar to teens, but one that has spread more broadly among youth in general to the point that a generational gap appears to exist in the minds of the swing voters, said Hiroshi Hirano, a professor of political science at Gakushuin University who has researched voter psychology.

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, swing voters as we know them didn’t have any particular party to support, but at least they had a basic enough understanding of how Japanese politics work and were able to exercise their own critical thinking and decide what party they wanted to vote for. It’s not like they were in denial of politics per se,” Hirano said.

But today, with the LDP all but invincible and the opposition fragmented, “many younger generation swing voters don’t even seem to know what parties exist — aside from the LDP,” he said. “So they are not only uncommitted to any specific party, but are downright apathetic toward politics itself and hard-pressed to derive any meaning out of it.”