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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Swept away: Japan's LDP suffers crushing parliamentary election defeat

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Fifty-four years of almost uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominance in Japanese politics came to an abrupt end on Sunday, August 30, 2009, when the conservative, business-oriented party was swept out of power in an election to the Shugiin or House of Representatives, the lower yet more powerful chamber of the Asian's country bicameral Parliament, the National Diet.

With all votes tallied, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) captured 308 of the 480 House of Representatives seats, while LDP only managed to secure 119, in a near-reversal of the previous 2005 general election outcome, when the Liberal Democrats scored a huge victory with 296 seats, while DPJ won only 113 seats.

Three-hundred of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives are filled in single-member constituencies by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) method used in legislative elections in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and India, while the remaining 180 mandates are filled by party list proportional representation (PR) under the largest average or D'Hondt method in eleven electoral blocs (multi-member constituencies). Unlike other countries with mixed electoral systems such as Germany, the FPTP and PR operate in parallel, that is separately from one another. As such, the distribution of party list seats does not entirely compensate for the disparities between votes and seats in the single-member constituencies.

FPTP usually over-represents the largest party at the expense of its competitors, and in Sunday's election the system contributed decisively to DPJ's parliamentary landslide: with 47.4% of the single-member district vote, DPJ won 221 of 300 seats (73.7%), whereas the Liberal Democrats came up with just 64 seats (21.3%) with 38.7% of the vote. Meanwhile, LDP fared even worse in the PR electoral blocs, where it won only 26.7% of the vote - its lowest share ever in a House of Representatives election (the second lowest if House of Councillors elections are taken into consideration); DPJ prevailed in all eleven multi-member constituencies with 42.4% and 87 of 180 party list seats (48.3%). Nonetheless, LDP won 55 list seats, or 30.6% of the total, as the cumulative effect of allocating PR seats by the D'Hondt rule in eleven separate constituencies slightly skewed the distribution of party list seats in favor of the larger parties.

Although opinion polls correctly anticipated the Japanese electorate's desire for political change, LDP fared somewhat better than in some polls, which had the party struggling to make it past twenty percent. That said, it should be noted that the Liberal Democrats had a considerably higher share of the single-member district vote due to the fact that its coalition partner, the New Komeito (NK; an offshoot of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai) stood down in most constituencies. NK only contested the eight single-member districts it had won in 2005 (in which LDP stood down), but lost all of them. However, the party fared better in the PR vote (where it fielded lists throughout the entire country), and suffered only relatively small losses, polling 11.4% of the vote and retaining 21 of the 23 party list seats it won in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) retained its nine PR seats with seven percent of the party list vote, a marginally smaller figure than in 2005; the Communists won no FPTP mandates. Likewise, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a DPJ ally, retained its seven seats: it picked up two additional single-member district seats (for a total of three, all won in constituencies where DPJ stood down), but lost an identical number of PR seats on a reduced 4.3% party list vote share. The People's New Party (PNP), another DPJ ally, had a similar outcome: it won an additional FPTP seat, for a total of three (again, all in constituencies that DPJ did not contest), but lost its two party list seats (for a a net loss of one) even though its nationwide share of the PR vote remained unchanged at 1.7%.

Finally, Your Party (YP), a LDP breakaway, won 4.3% of the party list vote and five seats (two in single-member constituencies, three in the PR electoral blocs); the small New Party Nippon and New Party Daichi retained their respective single seats; and six independents were elected from single-member constituencies.

Parliamentary Elections in Japan has detailed nationwide results of last Sunday's House of Representatives election.

The result of this year's House of Representatives poll in Japan bears a close resemblance to the outcome of the House of Councillors election held two years ago. At the time it was accurately projected that a lower house vote with the same results would produce an overwhelming DPJ parliamentary majority, but those forecasts were dismissed then as premature speculation, largely because LDP had managed to recover from previous upper house defeats by selecting new, more popular prime ministers who would then lead the party to victory in the next House of Representatives election.

However, that did not happen this time around. Instead, the Liberal Democrats stumbled from one short-lived government to another: since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as head of government in 2006, Japan has gone over three prime ministers in as many years. Moreover, the state of the Japanese economy - which has been in and out of recession during the course of the last two decades, alternating with periods of weak growth - did not show any noticeable improvement; on the contrary, just days before the election the unemployment rate reached a record high, a development which in all likelihood sealed the LDP's fate.

Although DPJ now has a more than comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, the party remains short of an overall majority in the House of Councillors, and DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama is expected to form a coalition government with SDP and PNP. The new government will have less than a year to deliver on its promises of change before Japanese voters return to the polls in July 2010, to choose half the members of the upper house. In all likelihood the Liberal Democrats, which have been decisively beaten but by no means wiped out, will seek to turn the vote into a referendum on the new government, as a first step on the road to power - just as DPJ did with the 2007 House of Councillors vote.