Magazine article Newsweek International

Japan Tunes out; Abe Is Driving Ever More Voters to Abandon Politics Altogether

Magazine article Newsweek International

Japan Tunes out; Abe Is Driving Ever More Voters to Abandon Politics Altogether

Article excerpt

Byline: Akiko Kashiwagi (With Christian Caryl)

It's election time in Japan again, yet Kazuyoshi Arima, a 25-year-old systems engineer, still doesn't know whom he'll vote for--if he goes to the polls at all on July 29. "I know I should be more engaged, feel more strongly about exercising my right to vote. But these days I'm getting to the point where I will just have to vote 'no'." It was easier to stay involved in politics a few years ago, he says, when the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi led the country. Under Koizumi, says Arima, Japan's direction was clear: toward economic reform, deregulation and the remaking of the sclerotic Liberal Democratic Party. But now, under Koizumi's successor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, "it's just so hard to decide who to vote for," Arima says. Both the LDP and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan seem rudderless and mired in mud.

Arima is not alone in his disillusionment. Recent opinion polls suggest that more than half of the Japanese electorate now share his view that neither party offers convincing solutions to problems that worry the public. While that's bad news for everyone, it could prove particularly devastating for Abe, who is facing an important parliamentary election later this month. That's because undecideds or swing voters are historically more likely to back for the opposition, whomever it is--if only to say no to the ruling party.

Abe's decline has been precipitous. Within months of taking office last fall, his government was buffeted by mishap and scandal. A poor finish now in the Upper House vote could mark the beginning of the end for his struggling government; should the LDP lose a large number of seats, some observers expect Abe would be forced to step down.

Whatever happens, one thing is already clear: the P.M.'s fate will be decided not by party loyalists but by "floaters"--a growing legion of the undecided and the apathetic. Indeed, thanks to Abe's lackluster administration, floaters now represent a majority of the electorate. The LDP's membership has fallen from 3.3 million to 1 million in the last decade. And the consequences of this shift could be long lasting. Unaligned voters--who Ray Christensen, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, says "are the key to the election"--could switch to the opposition en masse. The result? "A big loss would not mean the fall of the LDP, but it would push Japan further toward a two-party system," says Ikuo Kabashima, a political scientist at Tokyo University. And that would be a huge change for a place that's been ruled by the LDP for most of the last 50 years.

It must be a bitter irony for Abe that he faces this predicament today. After all, his immediate forebear, the swashbuckling Koizumi, was a reformer who bolstered the LDP's sagging popularity by promising sweeping change within the party and Japan at large. His camera-friendly "political theater" (as it was derided by his opponents) won over hosts of young disaffected voters. Koizumi also attracted large numbers of swing voters who might otherwise have backed the opposition. In retrospect, however, his accomplishments seem to have been temporary, a momentary halt in a steady slide toward popular disengagement. The real trouble began in the 1990s, when the LDP's seeming inability to rejuvenate Japan's economy--as well as its tolerance for corruption and confusing party realignment--caused the number of floaters to spike sharply, reaching nearly 50 percent (according to some political scientists). …

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