The Upper House election last Sunday was marred by a sluggish voter turnout of 48.8 percent — the second-lowest turnout for an Upper House election on record, only trailing 1995’s 44.52 percent. Even though the choice of government was not at stake, it is deplorable that only less than half of eligible voters cast their ballots in a nationwide Diet election, which means that the results reflect only half the nation’s popular will. What’s behind the falling voter turnout needs be identified and steps taken to address the problem.
Voter turnout stood at 65 percent in the Upper House election in 1989 but plunged to 50.72 percent in the next triennial race held in 1992, and then plummeted to a low of 44.52 percent in 1995. The turnout remained in the 50 percent range in the subsequent seven elections. The figure was 54.7 percent in the 2016 race, which was the first Diet election after the voting age was lowered to 18.
Noticeable in recent elections is the sluggish turnout among young voters. According to a sample survey, only 31.33 percent of eligible voters age 18 and 19 went to the polling stations in Sunday’s election — 17 points lower than the all-generation average and a decline of 15 points from 2016.
Turnout among the 18- and 19-year-olds in Diet elections has continued to fall since they were given the right to vote — from 46.7 percent in 2016 to 40.49 percent in the Lower House race in 2017. The turnout was even lower among 19-year-olds at 28.05 percent. The problem is attributed to the presence of many youths who after graduating from high school leave their hometowns to continue their education or find jobs without transferring their resident registry, depriving themselves of the right to vote in their current place of residence.
Along with addressing that problem, education in school needs to be revamped to develop in young people a sense of political participation and teach them their rights and obligations as voters. Political parties and lawmakers should examine whether they are presenting policy initiatives and election campaigns that can engage the teenage electorate and prompt more of them to vote.
In the latest election, it was widely forecast from the start that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition would secure a comfortable majority in the Upper House. The focus was on whether the ruling coalition and its allies would retain their two-thirds majority in the Upper House so they would have the supermajority needed in both chambers of the Diet to initiate an amendment to the Constitution. But as far as media surveys show, the constitutional amendment that Abe hopes to achieve during his time in office did not appear to be high on the list of issues of interest for voters.
If the sluggish turnout reflects voter apathy after years of Abe and his ruling coalition’s dominance in the Diet and in major elections, much of the blame goes to the opposition camp, which was once again unable to present a viable alternative to voters. The opposition parties need to realize that their prospects in future elections will remain bleak as long as they remain too weak and fragmented to put up a significant competition to the ruling bloc.
In the past, a low voter turnout was believed to favor the LDP since it relies heavily on the organized votes of its powerful campaign machines. That may no longer be true. An exit poll by Kyodo News showed that the LDP was the No. 1 choice of swing voters who were asked which party they cast their proportional representation vote for in Sunday’s race, eclipsing the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
The last time turnout in an Upper House election dipped below 50 percent — in the 1990s — it was often said that the falling voter turnout was primarily a problem of urban constituencies. However, many of the prefectures whose turnout tumbled to new lows on Sunday are in the rural farming regions of the country, whereas the turnout in Tokyo stayed above the national average.
Part of that was attributed to a one-time factor — the torrential rains that drenched large parts of Kyushu on election day, prompting authorities to issue evacuation orders in some areas. In four prefectures in Kyushu the turnout was more than 10 points lower than in the last election. Another factor was the redrawing of electoral districts across prefectural borders, in which four prefectures with declining population were combined into two constituencies beginning in the 2016 race. One of the four prefectures, Tokushima, where no locally based candidates were running in the constituency race on the ticket of either the ruling or the opposition parties, had the lowest turnout of 38.59 percent among the nation’s 47 prefectures.
There may be various factors behind the low voter turnout. Both the campaign for the Upper House election and its outcome need to be reviewed to learn what can be done to increase voter participation in future elections.