Just as expected, no change whatsoever. That is the prevailing impression of the by-elections held on Sunday in five Lower House constituencies and two Upper House districts. The by-elections ended in an overwhelming victory for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose candidates scored five wins. But it is highly questionable whether the results represent a real reflection of the popular will.
The parties created barely a ripple, never mind a storm, with their election campaigns, and the independents caused no stir at all. The by-elections’ failure to ignite public interest is best symbolized by the decline in voter turnout. In all seven constituencies, the number of voters casting their ballots registered a double-digit drop from the previous election. In Chiba, the voting percentage was only 24 percent.
Clearly, the political parties should be blamed for this miserable situation. They appear to have lost touch with voters, fielding candidates who were unable to arouse public interest in their campaigns. In all of the constituencies, the campaigns followed the formal pattern of ruling parties pitting themselves against opposition parties, but there was no lively and coherent debate about policies.
This was unbelievable. There is certainly no lack of issues to be seriously debated. The list includes deflation, financial uncertainty, the course of negotiations with North Korea on the normalization of diplomatic ties (including resolution of the abduction issue) and Pyongyang’s nuclear development program, and scandals involving politics and money.
The government and ruling parties now are adrift. The structural reform program of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been shaken to its roots, hinting even at the possibility of a policy change. There was no debate between the ruling and opposition parties over economic matters, and the question of political ethics just vanished into thin air.
Moreover, regarding the pros and cons of public works projects, which really should have been an outstanding point of contention, the main candidates of both the ruling and opposition parties all emphasized the need for them and, quite astonishingly, advocated road construction or similar projects in the constituencies concerned.
If points of debate are hidden and policy differences are not evident, an election itself loses meaning. The results overturned the pre-election forecasts that the ruling parties were at a disadvantage, yet the election outcome certainly is far from being a vote of confidence for the Koizumi administration.
One reason cited for the lack of interest is that, although the by-elections were national, local matters in each constituency and the narrow interests of political parties took precedence in campaigning. One candidate who ran for the opposition last time was backed by the ruling camp this time. Another candidate, while remaining in the same party, switched from a proportional representation constituency for the Lower House to a single-seat constituency in blatant disregard of the spirit of the Public Office Election Law.
Moral decay among parties and candidates cast a pall over the by-elections and helped pull down voter turnout. Also, it was reported that a former member of the Diet who was forced to resign over his involvement in a scandal was overtly and covertly promoting preparations for a comeback by taking advantage of his activities helping out a candidate’s campaign.
Improper acts and outrageous behavior by parties to hoodwink the electoral system lead to a further deepening of distrust in politics. The political parties should seriously reflect on their behavior. The lack of principles exhibited in the by-elections has shown that reform efforts triggered by the political corruption brought to light in the Recruit shares-for-influence scandal of the late 1980s — which have born fruit, for example, in the reform of the Lower House electoral system — have stalled somewhere along the way.
Far from dealing a heavy blow to the Koizumi administration, the by-elections ended in defeat for the opposition parties. As a result, there is probably going to be mounting criticism of the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan. However, it is uncertain whether such criticism will lead to the energizing of politics as a whole. Japan is now facing an economic crisis, and the government is in a state of deadlock, unable to come up with effective remedies. Under these conditions, elections offer a golden opportunity to inject some public will into politics. If elections do not send any clear message, then the crisis will become a dual one. And if politics falls into a state of real inactivity, the way out of the crisis will grow even more distant.
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