The “Floating Voters” Who Stayed Home
How the LDP maintained its hold
Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has mastered the art of holding onto power with smaller pluralities of the vote. In Sunday’s election for the powerful Lower House (LH) of the Diet, the LDP won just 48% of the vote in the 289 Single Member District (SMD) races but garnered 65% of those seats. In the Proportional Representation (PR) segment, it gathered just 35% of the vote, but that gave it 41% of the 176 PR seats.
This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the LDP got nearly two million fewer votes in its triumphant return to a Diet majority in 2012 than it had gotten in its disastrous defeat in 2009, when, for the only time ever, the voters tossed the LDP out of power via an election.
Behind the math and the politics is the phenomenon of Japan’s “floating voters,” voters who do not consistently support any particular party. Since 1998, they have averaged about 40% of the vote, according to NHK surveys. That’s up from just about 6% in the 1960s.
So, when they come out, they tip the balance in one direction or another. They did not come out on Sunday. Just 15% of all voters identified themselves as floating voters. That’s why the turnout for the election was just 55%, the third lowest turnout in the last dozen elections. The four lowest turnout rates all came in the elections since Shinzo Abe’s comeback in 2012.
One might suppose that these floating voters are so apathetic, disenchanted and/or fatalistic that they rarely bother to vote. But that’s not the case. Yes, that description applies to about a third of all floating voters. However, a 2012 study by Waseda Professor Aiji Tanaka showed that the other two-thirds, whom he calls “active independents” are very engaged. They’re interested in policy issues, very desirous of change, and they come out to vote when they feel there is someone to vote for, not just against. They are relatively young, have a higher rate of college graduates than party loyalists or the apathetic, and mostly live in urban or suburban areas. Compared to party loyalists, the active independents are far more interested in issues like long‑term performance of the economy, Japan’s international competitiveness, ethnic conflicts around the globe, environmental issues, provision of day-care and urban parks. They are far less interested in the machinations of intra-party factions, coalition government, and other matters of party politics.
In elections when these active independents see a real chance of change, they turn out en masse and the overall turnout rate rises. Take a look at the record as seen in this chart. The four highest turnout rates took place during times of potential change.
The highest turnout rate, 73%, came in 1990, just a year after the 1989 election for the less powerful Upper House. In that election, for the first time, the LDP lost control and the Socialist Party took over. In the 1990 LH election, the LDP lost 25 seats while the Socialists gained 51, but the LDP remained in power. Until the 1990s, the only major alternative to the LDP was the Japan Socialist Party, which was on the wrong side of the Cold War and had passed its peak back in the 1970s.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism, along with the onset of Japan’s “lost decades,” ushered in a new era in Japanese politics. Support for the Socialists and Communists plunged and a number of pro‑capitalist alternatives to the LDP gradually emerged, many of them short-lived. In 1993, amidst economic turmoil and a series of corruptions scandals involving a Prime Minister and cabinet ministers, the LDP split, and the LDP fell from power for the since its founding in 1955. A coalition government was formed out of parties filled with those who had left the LDP. In that year’s election, turnout in that election was 67%. Then, in a deal widely seen as cynical, the LDP allied with its long-term adversary, the Socialists, to return to power.
The third highest turnout rate since 1990, 68%, came in 2005. That’s when reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expelled from the LDP Diet members who had voted against his bill to privatize Japan Post. JP didn’t just deliver the mail. It ran one of the biggest banks in the world along with a huge insurance system, and was a major backer of what Koizumi denounced as “the resistance forces” in the “old LDP.” He successfully made “reform or not” the single issue of the campaign, attracted the “active independents” and succeeded.
Once Koizumi left the scene in 2006, the LDP reverted to its old ways. Consequently, not only did the share of floating voters increase, but increasing numbers of them were more willing to take a chance on the main opposition party, the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). In 2009, more than 69% of the eligible voters flocked to the polls, the second highest turnout since 1990. Of all the independents who came to vote, 59% chose the DPJ and just 22% the LDP. Only 19% chose another party.
Unfortunately, the DPJ was not up the task of governing. It messed up its opportunity. The LDP came back in 2012, because the floating voters stayed home. Turnout dropped to just 59%, the lowest rate in decades. Of the independents who did show up, 33% chose the LDP, 24% the DPJ and the remaining 43% chose another party. The latter was the beginning of a trend of rejecting both the LDP and the DPJ.
In the three subsequent elections, turnout diminished even further to 53-55%. The LDP rules by default. Polls show that the main reason the LDP stays in power is the lack of a viable alternative. Voters who were willing to give the LDP a second chance, and yet another second chance, and yet another, will not give the same benefit of the doubt to the DPJ. When the floaters did come out, they are as often as not more likely to vote for a party other than either the LDP or the DPJ’s successor, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP).
The low rate of turnout, combined with floating voter disenchantment with both the LDP and the CDP is one reason that regional parties have done well in both 2017 and 2021. In the most recent election, the Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party (JIP), quadrupled its Lower House delegation from 11 to 40 members. JIP combines nationalist and anti-establishment politics with neoliberal economics, as did the Tokyo-based regional party in 2017.
One final word. Historically, the LDP has tended to be most responsive to public needs—from universal health care, or fighting pollution, or solving the banking crisis—when it feels pressure from a truly competitive opposition. The outcome of Sunday’s election means Japan will continue for some time to be the only rich democracy that is still a one-party-dominant democracy. This does not bode well for constructive policy, certainly vis-à-vis economic issues.