The extremely low voter turnout for the Upper House by-election in Satama Prefecture last Sunday, in which former Saitama Gov. Kiyoshi Ueda defeated his sole opponent by a large margin, may be attributable to a combination of multiple factors, including the lack of competition among major parties, lingering damage from the recent typhoon and “election fatigue” on the part of voters after a series of key elections this year. Still, it is extraordinary that a representative to the Diet is elected by the votes of only 1 out of 5 voters in the constituency. Both the political parties and voters should share a sense of crisis over the problem.

Sluggish turnout has been a common problem in all major elections this year, including the nationwide series of local races in April and the Upper House campaign in July. The 20.81 percent turnout for the Saitama by-election was the fourth-lowest of all postwar Diet elections. Turnout was also at a record low 34.8 percent in the Miyagi Prefectural Assembly election held the same day.

The by-election was held to fill the vacuum created when Motohiro Ono lost his Upper House seat to run successfully in the Saitama gubernatorial race in August. Ueda, who did not seek re-election after serving four terms as governor for 16 years, was the clear favorite in the race, with support from the two largest opposition forces, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People, and labor unions.

Instead of risking a likely defeat at the hands of the former governor, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, whose candidate suffered an upset loss to the opposition-backed Ono in the gubernatorial race, chose not to field their candidate in the by-election. The lackluster campaign in the absence of competition among major parties is believed to have contributed to the dismal voter turnout.

Turnout tends to be sluggish when voters are not given viable choices in elections due to a lack of competition among key parties. That problem was also observed in the prefectural assembly elections held in April as part of the nationwide series of local polls, in which key opposition parties, dwarfed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition, failed to field enough candidates to prevent an easy sweep by the ruling alliance. The number of candidates on the tickets of the two largest opposition parties combined fell short of even a quarter of those running under the LDP’s banner. The average voter turnout in assembly elections in 41 prefectures was a record low 44.08 percent.

Voter turnout also fell short of 50 percent in other campaigns, including the triennial Upper House election in July, whose 48.8 percent turnout was the second-lowest on record for a nationwide race for the upper chamber. An even more serious problem — elections determined without even a vote because not enough candidates emerged to necessitate a contest for the available seats — was also widespread at the local level this year. In prefectural assembly elections, 27 percent of the seats up for grabs were decided without a vote on the day that candidacies were filed at the start of the campaign period. No voting was held in nearly 40 percent of the 945 electoral districts in the 41 prefectures.

The lowest voter turnout on record in Diet elections, including by-elections, was the 17.8 percent marked in a 1991 Upper House by-election in Saitama Prefecture. In that race, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, then the largest opposition force, did not field a candidate, leading to a lackluster contest between those running on the LDP and Japanese Communist Party tickets without a major issue at stake. True, turnout for by-elections tends to be smaller than for nationwide races. Turnout was also sluggish at 27.52 percent in another Upper House by-election in the same prefecture in 2003.

Yet another factor behind the poor turnout in last Sunday’s race was Typhoon Hagibis. Some of the facilities in the prefecture for early voting were temporarily closed due to damage caused by the storm. The number of Saitama voters who cast their ballots before election day was about 60 percent lower than in the July Upper House election.

The government has been taking steps to encourage more voters to go to the polls, such as opening early voting stations at popular commercial facilities. However, a significant recovery in voter turnout may not take place unless the political parties engage in a genuine competition that gives voters a meaningful choice, and citizens become more aware of the weight of their precious votes and make an effort to cast their ballots. Both the parties and voters need to come to terms with the seriousness of the problem of low turnout.

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