Japan election: Parties struggle to engage voters

Sunday’s vote for upper house seats has the ruling Liberal Democrats eyeing major gains.

While the stakes for Japan's political future may be high in these elections, voter interest has been low [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]
While the stakes for Japan's political future may be high in these elections, voter interest has been low [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]

Tokyo, Japan On Sunday Japanese voters go to the polls in a national election that is widely expected to result in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party gaining a level of parliamentary dominance that has never before been seen in post-war Japanese politics.

Should the ruling party and its allies emerge from these House of Councillors, or Upper House, elections with more than two thirds of the seats in the chamber, then even revisions to the nation’s pacifist constitution will be in reach for the arch-conservative prime minister.

Newspaper polls are predicting that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will easily regain its own simple majority in House of Councillors for the first time in 27 years, and that coalition partner Komeito, their support base deriving from a well-organised Buddhist sect, is also likely to make advances.

Meanwhile, the leading opposition Democratic Party is virtually guaranteed to suffer big losses in the number of seats it holds, with only the scale of its defeat being in question. The sole opposition party expected to be celebrating on election night is the Japan Communist Party, which has surged in popularity in the past few years to become Japan’s second-largest opposition party.

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While the stakes for Japan’s national charter and its political future may be high in these elections, voter interest has been low. Rob Fahey, a specialist of Japanese politics at the Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science, told Al Jazeera this election is likely to record the lowest voter turnout figures in Japanese history. 

“Neither the political parties nor the media have framed these elections in a way that makes them seem either consequential or engaging – or even gives the public the sense of having a real choice,” Fahey said.

These are, however, the first national elections that are being held since the voting age in Japan was lowered from 20 to 18, adding about 2.4 million people to the list of eligible voters.

Last summer there was considerable excitement over the emergence of the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or SEALDs, and the unusual degree of activism that some young people were showing in opposition to the Abe government’s passage of new security legislation.

Although the SEALDs still exist and some of its leaders continue to garner media attention, it is also apparent it has so far failed to spark a mass political movement among the young, nor are young voters expected to have a significant impact on the results of Sunday’s elections.

In their first test, which was a local mayoral election in southwestern Japan, eligible 18 and 19-year-olds had a voter turnout of only 38.4 percent compared with an overall voter turnout of 56.1 percent. 

Still, the largest Japanese political parties have been attempting to innovate in the video, internet and social media spheres in an effort to reach out to young voters.

It was only three years ago that internet campaigning was first allowed by a revision of the nation’s election law. Perhaps the most successful campaign since then is Kakusanbu, a group of eight animated characters supporting the Japan Communist Party. The stated objective of this “section” of characters is “to spread correct policies and politics throughout the world”.

In pursuit of this objective, the Kakusanbu webpage features a series of short “lectures”. For example, in the first lecture, the character Koyo no Yoko (Employee Yoko) shows the yellow card to “black companies” that force their employees to work unreasonably long hours without proper compensation.

For this election, the Democratic Party has created the VOTE18 campaign in which a pair of stylish female high school pupils encourage eligible teenagers to pay attention to politics and to vote.

The governing Liberal Democratic Party has uploaded a special manga pamphlet to its website called A Report to the Country, which is explicitly aimed at 18-year-old voters. Among other things, the online pamphlet explains the procedures for voting, and it also offers a short history of the ruling party, starting with Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and ending with a colour photo of Kishi’s grandson, incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Fahey provided a mixed evaluation of these efforts: “Online campaigning is new to Japanese politics, and parties here are still playing catch-up, with some success. But they are largely falling on deaf ears at a time when the public isn’t actually paying very much attention.”

Many members of the general public gave the same view. A service industry worker, Mr Abe, 35, told Al Jazeera to the extent he is interested in politics, it is the July 31 special election of a new Tokyo governor that is capturing his attention. As for Sunday’s House of Councillors election, he apologised and then stated, “I haven’t really been watching the news about it.

Follow Michael Penn on Twitter: @ShingetsuNews

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Source: Al Jazeera


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