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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012
The undecided to play key role in poll
Confusion over party policies could stifle voter turnout
Terue Ishimura has yet to decide which party she will vote for in the Dec. 16 general election. But one thing is clear — she won't be supporting the ruling Democratic Party of Japan again.
Ishimura, a Saitama Prefecture resident in her 60s, voted for the DPJ in the 2009 general election, when the party won a landslide victory that dethroned the Liberal Democratic Party for only the second time in more than 50 years.
But she is now disillusioned with the DPJ.
"At the time, I thought their manifesto was great and I had high expectations for them," she said Tuesday, as official campaigning kicked off. "But they didn't have enough ability to push things forward."
Ishimura said she likes Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for appearing true to his word, but she feels other parties should take the helm this time.
"The thing is, there isn't a party that seems to meet with all my views," she said. "I'm for Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, and I think we should stop relying on nuclear power. And I don't like the idea of revising the Constitution. . . . I really don't know yet."
Surveys show that there are many undecided voters like Ishimura. The latest opinion poll held by Kyodo News on Dec. 1-2 showed that 41.5 percent of the 1,219 eligible voters who responded said they hadn't decided which party to vote for in the proportional representation segment of the Lower House election.
Opinion polls by other media held during the same period also showed a similar trend, with between 30 to 50 percent of respondents claiming they had yet to make up their minds.
With the portion of undecided voters exceeding the support enjoyed by any of the 12 political parties in this race, pundits say they are the key to the outcome.
Swing voters were also a key factor that handed a major victory to the LDP in the 2005 general election, as well as the DPJ's historic 2009 victory.
But political science experts observing public opinion said this year's election seems to lack the kind of momentum seen in the 2005 and 2009 polls.
Unlike in those earlier elections, the political parties this time haven't been able to clarify the issues for voters, they said.
"There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm (for the election) this time around" among voters, said Yukio Maeda, associate professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Social Science.
In the Kyodo poll, the LDP was the most favored party, at 18.4 percent, followed by Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), led by former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, at 10.4 percent. The DPJ placed third, backed by 9.3 percent.
Launched by Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada with the primary goal of abolishing nuclear power, Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), which merged with political don Ichiro Ozawa's party days before the poll, had a 3.5 percent support rate. The rate for the LDP's former ruling coalition partner, New Komeito, was 4.8 percent.
Although the LDP may be positioned to take the most seats, a landslide victory is not in the cards, experts say. Even if Nippon Ishin or Nippon Mirai win a good amount of support from those fed up with the LDP and DPJ, they won't appeal to enough voters yet to challenge the two major parties.
In the last two general elections, voters were presented with clear, appealing issues to base their decisions on.
In the 2005 poll, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Lower House after a bill to privatize the postal system — a centerpiece of his plan to revive the economy by downsizing the government — was blocked in the Upper House by members of his own party.
Those who opposed the plan within the LDP were booted from the party and ran as independents. In the election, Koizumi then sent "assassin" candidates to oust them. Swing voters are said to have participated in this showdown, handing Koizumi a huge victory.
But the LDP's approval rate continued a steep decline after Koizumi left office, with his successor, Shinzo Abe — who has returned to lead the party this year — and others lasting about a year in office.
Meanwhile, the DPJ, which had been gradually boosting its support, compiled a manifesto in 2009 and won the general election promising to change the government.
But while it managed to oust the LDP, its support rate, too, started to fall as it failed to deliver on its promises.
Still, some remain willing to give the DPJ another shot.
"I supported the DPJ in 2009 and I want to give them another chance this time," said Yasuo Kitamura, 53, a company employee from Kanagawa Prefecture in Tokyo on business Tuesday.
"I think they've learned a lot in these past three years. They've tried to work on improving the economy, and they seem to have worked hard on the pension issue, and I want them to continue that."
But a 47-year-old woman from Suita, Osaka Prefecture, who was visiting her daughter in Tokyo, said she doesn't plan to support the DPJ this time, although she voted for the party in 2005 and 2009.
"I thought they could change things, but they didn't," said the woman, who declined to give her name.
"But with the DPJ's popularity going down, I sense that the LDP's popularity is going up. I don't know about Abe. I feel he may screw up the economy."
The woman said she has voted for Nippon Ishin in local Osaka elections, but was still undecided whether she would vote for them in the general election.
Because the power structure has been a de facto two-party system dominated by the DPJ and LDP, the votes should theoretically swing back to the largest opposition force.
However, even if the LDP can win back seats, it almost certainly won't be as big as before, said Airo Hino, associate professor at Waseda University's School of Political Science and Economics.
New forces like Nippon Ishin and Nippon Mirai emerged because the two major parties still lack a unifying presence. But Hino said that after Hashimoto's tieup with Ishihara, Nippon Ishin may have lost its initial appeal as the local force for change in the country.
"Theoretically, new parties attract voters when they own an issue that existing parties fail to work on," Hino said. "They may still win a good amount of support, but it's not the kind of victory similar to what the LDP experienced in 2005 and the DPJ in 2009."
In the case of Nippon Mirai, Kada has been a longtime advocate of green energy, but with several other parties also pushing for the country to end its dependence on nuclear power, Nippon Mirai may not stand out. On top of that, Kada's tieup with Ozawa — a known backroom fixer — is another element that may alienate voters.
Over the next 10 days, the parties may try to clarify their messages to appeal to voters, but in the end undecided voters will be forced to choose who to support on their own, based on their individual interests, Hino said.
"The outcome may not look like it is a unified voice of the voters," he said.
Both Hino and Maeda of the University of Tokyo predict voter turnout will fall from that of the 2005 and 2009 elections, which saw turnout of 67.5 percent and 69.2 percent, respectively, as undecided voters avoid the polls.
This election may, in fact, be a good chance for both politicians and voters to reflect on the consequences of past electoral behavior and base their decisions and policies on what they take from that look back.
It "will be as if people are cleaning up the mess after a big fireworks festival. Voters will probably make decisions in a very calm manner," Maeda said.
"Politicians need to seriously consider what they can really do when they hold government power, and voters should focus on judging the credibility of the politicians," he said.