Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is doing everything he can to discourage Japanese voters from taking tomorrow’s election seriously. He is succeeding. On top of his efforts, is getting help from the media, which are already predicting a comfortable margin of victory for the current ruling coalition.
This news of a pending election victory for the Liberal Democratic Party alone should encourage all the undecided voters who might have hoped for change to stay home tomorrow. And that is Mori’s preference, as he made clear when he blatantly suggested in Niigata on Tuesday that he hoped all independent voters would just sleep in on Sunday.
So, why bother with all this? What is this election really all about? Actually, it is a critical vote that should be taken more seriously than it is. For better or worse, the next group of political leaders will determine if real change is possible in Japan or if Japan will just stay the course of the disastrous past decade and try to muddle through.
But since Japanese elections are not about policy issues, candidate character or campaign-fundraising reform, they end up, as in this election, being about lesser issues — wet feet, the Buddha and stargazing.
Mori’s top concern is “wet feet,” because he knows that what affects elections the most in Japan is the weather on election day. Voter turnout varies dramatically depending upon whether it is sunny, rainy or cloudy. Historically, the LDP’s fortunes go up as voter turnout goes down.
And, in fact, the weekend is likely to be cloudy and wet. Statistically, this means that if it rains tomorrow, a good number of those fair-weather, independent voters who account for 42 percent of the electorate might well stay home.
The LDP knows that its hard-core, dedicated supporters will turn out even if there is an earthquake. This organized vote has always carried the day for the LDP and the ruling coalition. Voter turnout was initially predicted to be in the 65 percent to 75 percent range, but we know from past election data that rain could reduce the turnout anywhere from 5 percent to 13 percent.
As a backup insurance policy, Mori decided to hold the election on June 25 — the very day the Buddha died, believe it or not. Party elders opposed him on this because of the ill fortune that it might bring. If you are superstitious, and Japanese certainly are, then June 25 is one day you prefer to stay home and avoid taking any risks. The only other postwar election ever held on the day the Buddha died was in 1986. It paid off and Mori knows that. It didn’t rain that day, but it was cloudy, and the LDP performed quite well.
Remember all those people who talked about Mori setting the election date for Sunday, June 25, former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s birthday, just to get the sympathy vote? Well, as it turns out, there is too much sympathy and mourning floating around for LDP leaders. Since the election date was set, former prime ministers and party elders have been dying like flies, the most recent being former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita just this week.
Finally, just to be on the safe side, the prime minister’s residence is alleged to have privately contacted one of Japan’s leading astrologers. She is reported to have said that the map of planetary relationships for Sunday, June 25 was not encouraging. Neither the LDP nor the opposition will do well on Sunday. Japanese seem resigned to their situation and don’t expect much from government anymore. She predicted a complete postelection shakeup in the existing political party structure.
As a last resort, the LDP also had several esteemed political scientists tweak the election numbers and give them the bottom line. They see the popular mood as favoring the LDP. Their first reaction was that even though nearly everyone is concerned about the economy, this is not a Clinton-style “It’s the economy, stupid” election. Unemployment is not much of a factor since most of the people without work are young people who usually don’t vote anyway. Add to that the recent rise in private consumer spending, and the prospect of an economic backlash against the LDP isn’t evident.
The experts were also not too worried about plummeting public support for Mori and his Cabinet, because the election is not about leadership, as in U.S. presidential elections. The Japanese electoral system focuses on local issues and party images. That is all that counts, and everyone expects the LDP to dump Mori as soon as it can anyway.
So, no matter how you look at it, next Monday morning will probably be just like any other Monday in Japan and the politicians will be busy with the same old issues. Unfortunately for those who wish for real change, there is no silver lining in this dark political cloud. The Japanese economy will very likely remain stuck in recession, public funds will continue to be misallocated to agriculture and construction projects, and deregulation will probably be pushed farther down the agenda.
But we have to remember that if the Japanese have wet feet about change, that is their right in a democracy. If Japanese like what they have and seem willing to pay the price for the kind of assurances and stability they enjoy, that is their privilege. Or as one politician friend put it, “This is Japan. There are always compensations. No matter what happens, we all lose equally.”
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