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Anti-Abe voters become independents

By Hiroyuki Akiyama and Junnosuke Kohara


Support for the opposition parties continues to be sluggish. In the Nikkei public opinion poll for July, 12% of respondents said they backed the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) while 1% said they favored the second opposition party, Democratic Party for the People (DPFP). With its 38% support rate, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoyed a considerable lead. Independents, voters who do not back any particular party, made up 36% of all respondents in the July poll. Voters who do not support the LDP are not turning to the opposition parties but are becoming independents.


Support for opposition parties is at historically low levels


Kenichiro Seki of the DPFP says voters complain to him that “there is a mental sluggishness at the Diet now because the opposition parties are too weak.” Nonsupport for the Abe cabinet was as high as around 50% due to the scandals related to school corporations Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution. Despite that, however, the support rates for the opposition parties have not risen.


No main opposition party has maintained a support rate of 10% for even five years


The average support rate for the main opposition party in the Lower House in the five years and seven months since the launch of the second Abe cabinet in December 2012 (namely, the Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ], Democratic Party [DP], and CDPJ) is 8.7% based on Nikkei polls. In about 70% of the 71 polls conducted over that time, the support rate was in the single digits. The highest was the 14% posted in November 2017 and April 2018 by the CDPJ. Since 1987 when the Nikkei started conducting public opinion polls, no main opposition party has maintained a 10% support rate for even five years. The support rate for the main opposition party is at historically low levels.


In the 2000s, the DPJ support rate would rise when LDP backing declined. The two rates moved together. Even in the days of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose administration lasted from 2001–06, the support rate for the DPJ averaged around 20%. The highest rate for the DPJ during that period was the 31% recorded in September 2004, which was within striking distance of the LDP’s 34%.


The situation has been different since the Abe cabinet took office in December 2012. The Abe administration has also enjoyed a long period in office, but only twice has the main opposition party’s support rate risen in the eight times that the LDP support rate has dropped over 5 points. In seven of these eight times, the percentage of independents increased. “The LDP and independents” move in tandem rather than “the LDP and opposition parties.” An LDP member who has served as LDP Election Strategy Committee chairperson says, “With the political party support rates, we pay attention to the movements of the ‘independents’ not those of the opposition party support rates.”


Opposition party support rates rise near election time


“Opposition party support rates have never risen except around election time. A historical review of party support rates reveals that opposition party backing does not go up until an election comes,” says CDPJ leader Yukio Edano. When there is no election on the horizon, voters are interested in the policy decisions and scandals of the government and ruling parties. It seems that voters tend not to take notice of statements by the opposition party leaders and the differences between the opposition and ruling parties’ statements unless an election is coming up.


Analyzing the relationship between elections and the opposition party support rates reveals that Edano’s words have a certain amount of truth to them. In 13 of the 20 national elections held since the 1989 Upper House race, the party that was the main opposition party before the election had a higher support rate after the election.


For example, going into the 1998 Upper House election, the DPJ had a support rate of 10% but it rose to 28% after the election. In the case of the 2007 Upper House election, the DPJ’s support rate rose 18 percentage points to reach 44% after the election, and the party used this as a foothold to take over the reins of government in 2009.


DPFP co-leader Yuichiro Tamaki says about his party’s 1% support rate: “There is nothing we can do about the rate because the party has not been in an election yet.” The party is depending on an election to boost its support rate.


There are also cases like that of the Party of Hope in the 2017 Lower House election, however. Formed in September 2017, the Party of Hope became the main opposition parties in a single bound when it landed a 13% support rate in a spot poll taken right after the October Lower House race was announced. Support faltered, however, after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who was the party leader at that time, said she would “exclude” [liberal members of the DP from joining her party]. In the election, the Party of Hope was surpassed by the CDPJ in terms of both seats held and support rate. The Party of Hope later split up.


The 2019 Upper House race will be the first full-fledged national election since the formation of the new opposition party framework with the demise of the DPJ and DP. The turnout rates for the last three Lower House elections were the lowest in the postwar period. The question is whether the opposition parties will be able to prevent voters opposed to the Abe administration from becoming independents and instead attract them to support the opposition parties.


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