Dissecting Hiraoka’s victory

It is probably safe to call Hiraoka Hideo’s victory in Yamaguchi-2 resounding.

He received 116,348 votes, approximately 13,000 more votes than he received in 2005 when he lost to Fukuda Yoshihiko and 7,000 more votes than his previous high (109,647), which he received running for reelection in 2003. He received 22,000 votes than the LDP’s Yamamoto Shigetaro, and his 116,348 votes amounts to 54.7% of the 212,540 votes cast. Interestingly, the 13,000-vote improvement over 2005 is roughly equivalent to the amount of votes received by Yamanaka Ryoji, the JCP candidate in 2005. Given that Mr. Yamamoto received approximately 10,000 fewer votes than Mr. Fukuda did in 2005, Mr. Hiraoka’s margin of victory cannot be attributed solely to the absence of a JCP candidate — but it certainly didn’t hurt. (For data on Yamaguchi-2, please see Japanese Wikipedia’s entry on the district.)

It is a mistake, however, to draw too many conclusions about the DPJ’s prospects in a general election based on this campaign, given the number of conditions in the DPJ’s favor that had little to do with the national political situation. Given the DPJ candidate’s history of success in the district, the party was the prohibitive favorite — it would have been a problem if the party could not pick up the seat. It does suggest that Mr. Ozawa’s effort to recruit quality candidates may yet bear fruit. Obviously there is no more “quality” candidate than an incumbent (PR) member of the lower house who had previously won the district in multiple elections. But the candidate matters, and the more candidates the DPJ can recruit who have won elections, regardless of the level, the better the party should fare. (Recall that this is an element of Ethan Scheiner’s argument about opposition failure.)

Is it possible to divine the state of the Japanese electorate from this by-election? Machimura Nobutaka says no. In a literal sense, Mr. Machimura is right. The votes of citizens in Yamaguchi-2 reflect the views only of those citizens. It is also difficult to discern the extent to which the campaign was driven by local issues and by national issues. As MTC suggests, for example, the presence of MCAS Iwakuni in the district may have been a hidden factor in the election. But national issues, especially the government’s poorly planned introduction of a new medical care system for seniors clearly played an important role — as expected — and the government is delusional if it thinks it’s dealing with localized grievances.

While Mr. Hiraoka’s victory may have been a foregone conclusion, the size of his victory was not. Arguably this by-election is but the latest manifestation of the deep and growing discontent among the Japanese people with the government, the disillusionment that prompted voters to reject LDP HC candidates throughout the country last summer. Mr. Hiraoka took this line in discussing his victory. The LDP-led government has done little since July to combat the malaise; indeed, the government has arguably worsened the malaise as a result not only of its inability to fix old problems — the pensions scandal — but its inability to present a coherent program to voters. Perhaps Mr. Hiraoka’s margin of victory is a sign that voters have rejected the government’s attempts to blame the DPJ for policy paralysis. Perhaps the voters recognize, even if the pundits don’t, that the general election ought to and will be a referendum on LDP rule, not on the DPJ’s ability (or lack thereof) to wield power.

How will the Fukuda government respond? As MTC notes (see link above), “…It will almost certainly increase the timidity of the Cabinet and the ruling coalition as regards policy innovation and implementation. When you are down, everything difficult looks like a threat. When you are struggling, every challenge looks too unpopular to undertake.” I suspect that’s the right conclusion to draw. The risk-averse school — the besieged elders — in the LDP will continue to call the shots, which means that the Fukuda government will continue its race to oblivion. For the LDP’s leaders, the least risky thing to do is to proceed exactly as planned, re-passing the tax bill on Wednesday and the prevailing road construction bill — not Mr. Fukuda’s “compromise” bill — after the sixty-day period expires on 12 May.

At this point the DPJ needs to do little more than continue to harass the government and undermine whatever claims it makes to be fighting for reform. Tend your own garden, Mr. Ozawa. Ensure that your candidates are ready for an election when it comes. Call attention to the inconsistencies in the government’s plans. Flesh out just what “regime change” will mean for Japan.

In the meantime, the LDP will continue to crumble, as potential successors campaign more openly to replace the enfeebled prime minister and as the party’s contending schools of thought fight bitterly over how the party should proceed and by extension what identity the party should adopt.

And the malaise will spread.

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