The DPJ can win a majority — but what will it mean?

Having tabulated the predictions made over the course of my election handbook, I think it’s appropriate that I return and answer my initial question.

Can the DPJ win an absolute majority?

Based on my district-by-district predictions, I think the DPJ could win 279 seats, the LDP 159 seats, Komeito fifteen seats, the JCP and PNP seven seats each, the SDPJ five seats, Your Party three seats, LDP-affiliated independents three seats, and small parties (affiliated with the DPJ) two seats.

In other words, the DPJ would gain 167 seats, the LDP would lose 144 seats, Komeito would lose sixteen seats, the JCP would lose two seats, the SDPJ would lose two seats, the PNP would gain two seats, and the number of independents and representatives from small parties would fall by two.

Before I go into the implications of the DPJ’s winning so substantially, it was worth recalling the words of the great philosopher Yogi Berra (or, alternatively Niels Bohr — what a pair): “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” The number 279 is not in and of itself important. I suspect that my figure is probably the upper bound of a range in which the DPJ will likely win, and there is still time for the LDP to retake seats on the margins. What I think my survey suggests is simply that by looking at the race from the bottom up, it does seem likely that the DPJ will exceed the 240 seats needed for an absolute majority.

Given that the DPJ is already committed to a coalition government, however, the symbolic importance of a DPJ victory may be more important than its importance for a DPJ-led coalition, although the DPJ would presumably have more bargaining power with its coalition partners having a majority of its own. If the DPJ wins as decisively as my estimate suggests, it will truly mark the end of the LDP’s permanent rule. Unlike in 1993, there will be no doubts about the public’s having voted for “change.” The DPJ will have a mandate. What that mandate means may, as I previously suggested, be unclear, but the DPJ will have the power to act, forcing its rivals to reconsider how best to oppose a ruling party with this level of support.

At the same time, however, the public will expect the government to act. Having an absolute majority will likely mean higher expectations for a DPJ government, its lack of a majority in the upper house notwithstanding. Of course, the higher expectations that will accompany a DPJ majority will make the July 2010 upper house elections even more important to the government.

In short, a DPJ majority could be both a blessing and a curse: public affirmation that the DPJ has arrived as a ruling party, accompanied by expectations that the DPJ do something with its mandate. Indeed, arguably at least one factor in the LDP’s likely defeat will be that it squandered the mandate it received in 2005. That should be a warning for the DPJ.

What, meanwhile, would this outcome mean for the LDP? Naturally it will mean a certain amount of disarray, with faction chiefs and other party leaders losing their seats. The factions have already seen a precipitous decline in their influence within the party in matters other than the selection of sub-cabinet officials. Would a landslide defeat that includes losses by several faction leaders be the final blow to the influence of factions, as the LDP’s survivors reorganize themselves along more ideological lines? After a general election the fight in the LDP will be to determine who should be nominated to run in the next general election, presumably a fight between traditionalists in places like Kyushu and Shikoku who think that the party needs to return to its roots and Nakagawa Hidenao and survivors from urban districts who think that the defeat shows why the party has to focus on winning in places other than Kyushu and Shikoku. Does anyone think that the factions would play the leading role in determining who will get the LDP’s endorsement in single-member districts?

In the nearer term, the same question goes for the campaign for the party’s leadership, which will be held in the weeks following the election? Especially given the breakdown in recent party elections, does anyone think that the forthcoming LDP presidential election will be decided along factional lines?

If the LDP indeed loses as badly as it appears it will, the fight within the LDP for the soul for the party will be brutal and protracted. Ozawa may not need to do anything to help the LDP tear itself to pieces. It will likely emerge stronger from defeat, but it will not be the same LDP. In the end, the LDP may find itself looking for candidates like the DPJ’s this year: younger, a bit more female, and perhaps some bureaucratic experience (but not too much) or else backgrounds in finance or the media. It will certainly have no problem saying no to a DPJ government.

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