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New Voters Swung Japanese Election
Yukio Hatoyama, current Japanese Prime Minister.

New Voters Swung Japanese Election

Political Scientist Takeshi Iida investigates shifts in voter attitudes and participation behind the 2009 election result that brought the Democratic Party of Japan to power for the first time.

By Lorena Olvera

Voters usually not interested in politics or not participating in the election of 2003, or former elections, voted in the election of 2009. And many of them voted for an opposition party.

After more than half a century in power, with one brief pause, Japan's long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) finally lost control of the powerful lower house of parliament last August, and a party founded in 1998, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is leading the country for the first time. The landslide result was partly foreshadowed by a setback for the LDP in the 2007 contest for the upper house. As often happens after a dramatic change, however, conventional political wisdom doesn't seem to explain the events.

"When the LDP lost in 2007 and 2009, journalists said it’s because they lost votes in rural areas, but figures suggest otherwise," said Takeshi Iida, a political scientist at Waseda University in Tokyo, at a Jan. 11 lecture sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA.

When Iida examined returns from Japan’s rural districts, considered LDP strongholds, he found that in absolute numbers the party won fairly consistent backing from voters in 2003, 2005 and 2009. However, voter turnout changed.

"Voters usually not interested in politics or not participating in the election of 2003, or former elections, voted in the election of 2009. And many of them voted for an opposition party. That’s the mechanism under which a swing occurs," he said. "The question is under what circumstances these two conditions arise."

To consider just that sort of question, Iida and colleagues had already teamed up with Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, to conduct a national survey six times before the August 30, 2009, election and once immediately after. They tracked voter attitudes by asking respondents to rate their levels of disappointment or hope in the two leading parties. Disappointment in the LDP consistently ran higher than in the DPJ, though the margin closed in March 2009 because then-DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa became entangled in a political fundraising scandal. Ozawa resigned in May 2009 to be replaced Yukio Hatoyama, now the prime minister.

In simple terms, Iida suggests that a shift in power occurred in 2009 due to voter disappointment in the leading party, the LDP, and hope in an opposing party. The DPJ's numbers improved significantly following the change in its leadership.

The survey also showed an advantage for the LDP on security issues, while voters had more confidence in the DPJ to handle fiscal reconstruction, the old-age pension system, immigration and other concerns.

Iida aims to use his studies to construct a model that could predict swing votes in future elections. For now, he needs more data, and Yomiuri has agreed to continue the surveys for the next upper house election.
 

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies