TOKYO — The Japanese voters who on Sunday will elect a new government are loyal to no party and frustrated with each of the recent leaders to hold power. They are political pessimists facing a choice among a ruling party with an approval rating in the teens, an unreformed opposition party that was booted out only three years ago and a raft of minor parties formed in pre-election haste.
Polls conducted by Japan’s mainstream media suggest that the opposition giant, the Liberal Democratic Party , will easily return to power after this general election, which will award seats in the lower house of parliament. The LDP, political analysts say, has emerged in recent months as Japan’s least objectionable party. With a support rate of 26 percent, it is by far the country’s most popular one.
Analysts say the broad political discontent stems from the two-decade failure among Japan’s politicians to rejuvenate the economy, curb the national debt and reverse deflation. Though disillusionment here about politics is nothing new, the sentiment has intensified recently as the current government struggles to contend with China in an intense territorial dispute and as the major parties show little interest in following the anti-nuclear wishes held by the majority of the Japanese population.
The election is largely local, with the country divided into 300 constituencies and voters in each district selecting their preferred candidate. The remaining 180 seats are filled proportionally, based on each party’s share of the vote. The party that controls the lower house — the more powerful of the chambers in Japanese legislature, called the Diet— then installs its party president as prime minister.
At least a dozen parties are backing candidates to fill seats in the Diet, and polls strongly suggested that the LDP will capitalize on fractured voter sentiment by winning most of the local races, even when far shy of a majority. Under that scenario, a party with no actual mandate would win in a landslide victory, and Japan’s next prime minister would be Shinzo Abe, a nationalist who already ruled the country once before in what many thought was a woeful one-year term, before quitting because of a stress-induced bowel illness.
He would replace Yoshihiko Noda, of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
“The LDP hasn’t particularly done anything exciting to win support, but people have now decided, reluctantly, that it can’t be worse than the DPJ,” Michael Green, who holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a discussion Monday at the Heritage Foundation. “So they’re going for something different. If they can’t have hope and change, they’ll go for competence. So this is not an exciting hope-and-change election in Japan.”
Only three years ago — during the previous general election — Japan was hopeful. Its voters had ousted the LDP, the monolith that had ruled nearly uninterrupted for 54 years, and handed power to the DPJ, led by a Stanford-trained math engineer, Yukio Hatoyama.
“Everything starts now,” Hatoyama said at the time.
Support quickly disintegrated. The DPJ’s leaders pledged to weaken long-held ties with bureaucrats and big businesses, and they tried, but it left the party weakened. Hatoyama also wanted to change Japan’s “somewhat passive” relationship with the United States, and sparred with Washington over where to relocate a noisy Marine base in Okinawa — a tactic he blamed for his squandered support on the day he resigned.
Subsequently, after a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that followed the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, DPJ officials were weeks and months late in admitting key information about the severity of the accident. The DPJ’s second prime minister, Naoto Kan, resigned, giving way to Noda.
Noda proved a competent leader, many pundits say, even winning cross-party support for a controversial tax hike. But in the process he alienated key members of his own party, who defected. And as a center-right hawk, he had little interest in the party’s original populist promises. Recent audits have also shown that the government has burned billions of dollars from its reconstruction budget — intended for the northeastern area of the country that was devastated by the the tsunami — on unrelated projects, undercutting the DPJ pledge that it would cut away wasteful spending.
“The government has not grasped the conditions in the affected region,” said Seiji Sato, a city official in Rikuzentakata, a coastal town trying to rebuild.
On the campaign trail, Noda has blamed the LDP for Japan’s two-decade stagnation, saying the party’s notorious public works projects ramped up the national debt without spurring the economy.
“Do we want to go back in time like that?” he asked.
The answer appears to be yes. According to polls conducted monthly by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, support for the DPJ has been under 20 percent since November 2011. During that time, anywhere between 52 and 33.5 percent of Japanese say they support no party at all.
“It appears to me that the election is about punishing the DPJ,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Politicians see an opportunity to fill the DPJ’s void. In recent months mayors, regional governors, movie stars and DPJ defectors have all started their own parties. Several of the highest-profile ones have quickly formed alliances or mergers designed to broaden their appeal. But some pundits say the third parties have instead muddled their purpose.
A popular, far-right wing regional party in Osaka, for instance, linked up with former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. But Ishihara, who hinted recently that Japan should acquire nuclear weapons if it wants to be taken more seriously, almost immediately second-guessed the party’s pledge to “phase out” nuclear power.
The minor parties are “opportunistic,” said Jun Iio, a professor of government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “That is the problem. They are trying to get easy support, so they go for the easy answer.”
According to a recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, 71 percent of voters struggle to differentiate between the parties’ campaign platforms.
“It’s a little bit chaotic right now,” Iio said.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.