Japan’s post-populist democracy

Japanese Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe delivers a campaign speech for his party candidate Yoshiro Toyoda for the 21 July Upper House election in Funabashi, Tokyo, 7 July 2019 (Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO/Reuters).

Author: Tobias Harris, Teneo Intelligence

If pre-election polls are accurate, voter turnout in Japan’s Upper House election on 21 July could be well below historic highs. Voter interest in the campaign is subdued, and the share of voters who say they definitely intend to vote is lower than at the same point in 2016, when turnout was at 54.7 per cent — one of the lowest since 1995’s record low of 44.5 per cent. The three Lower House elections since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2012 have also seen the lowest turnout rates in Japan’s post-war history.

If voters do once again stay away from the polls, it will confirm perhaps that the dominant features of Japanese democracy during Abe’s tenure are voter apathy and the moribund state of inter-party competition.

Many commentators wonder how Japan has remained immune from the populism that is running rampant in its peers among the advanced industrial democracies of Europe and North America. But the question presumes that Japan has in fact been free of populism — even a cursory look at Japanese democracy since the early 1990s belies this claim. In fact, the Lower House elections of 2005 and 2009 that preceded Abe’s 2012 return turned on populist appeals and saw the highest levels of voter turnout since Japan adopted a new electoral system in 1994.

The collapse in voter turnout since 2012 may not have a single explanation, but it is at least partly a reflection of the public’s exhaustion with populist-tinged political competition.

Voters initially fell for former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s neoliberal populism in which he castigated the LDP’s old guard as the ‘forces of resistance’ and advocated for reforms that would open up Japan’s economy and break the old guard’s political …continue reading