Japan’s not-so-hot election

July 9, 2010

Candidates on the campaign trail in Japan are sweating through the summer heat but voters have been cool towards this Sunday’s upper house election.

Sure, the government won’t change because the ruling Democratic Party will still control the more powerful lower house.

But the election matters because failure for the Democrats to win a majority would split parliament and stall policymaking, blocking Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s pledge to cut Tokyo’s huge public debt, create jobs and fix the creaking social security system.


So why aren’t voters fired up? For one, the campaign has been pretty dull.

Rules require media to give equal coverage to all the political parties — not great for viewership when there are more than 10 of them. TV debates have had no fewer than seven party leaders arguing over issues ranging from the economy to diplomacy.

The debates are squeezed into shows lasting an hour or less, and include brief intervals showing pre-recorded comments from other party heads. Even Yasuo Tanaka, leader of New Party Nippon with just one seat in parliament, gets air time.

News on the election has also been overshadowed by coverage of the World Cup, a scandal in the traditional sport of sumo and flash floods triggered by “guerilla rains” across the country.

Another reason may be a lack of “hot” issues.

Opposition parties have pounced on Kan’s sudden proposal to start debate on raising the sales tax, but several, including the Democrats’ biggest rival, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), agree a hike is needed eventually. Kan, meanwhile, says any hike won’t happen for at least two or three years and has been vague on what the proceeds will be used for.

The Democrats have been mum on other potentially hot issues, like giving married women the right to keep their birth names and giving foreigners the right to vote, since the party itself is divided.

Or maybe voters are electioned-out.

Voters handed the Democrats power for the first time in a landslide election last year that saw the conservative LDP ousted for only the second time in over 50 years. Crowds flocked to campaign rallies with hopes for historic change.

But Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, dashed those hopes, quitting after just eight months in office, pressured by political funding scandals and chaotic policymaking.

“Give us another chance,” Kan pleads in an election flyer. But many voters are wondering if they should.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato

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