In Japan, pork-barrel politics works and wins

This week, the Japanese election produced an unpredicted result driven by a groundswell of support from key pockets of the country. However, this wasn’t the result of energised youth or ethnic minority support as seen in the US in 2020, or Germany in 2021, but of older voters living in the rolling hills of Japan’s sprawling countryside.

The elderly and rural leant their support to an executive novice – Fumio Kishida. Having been Prime Minister for only a month and succeeding the unpopular premierships of Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, Kishida had to convince his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) base that he was qualified to deliver.

Strategic generosity wins votes

The LDP understands where its votes are – in rural villages, such as Chizu, a village in the south of the island. These areas tend to skew older, with more agricultural workers, and aspirational small to medium business owners. Here, stability rules.

Villages like Chizu are grateful recipients of targeted funding from the central government. With a population of just under 7,000, Chizu has received enough financial support to build a 12,000sq ft library, a new nursery, and to renovate the entire middle school. Highways have also been improved, with state-of-the-art tunnels which cut through the mountains facilitating travel and business. Agricultural subsidies have also been increased.

Why is such investment a vote winner? Firstly, aspirational business owners and agricultural workers see this investment as a concerted effort by the LDP to connect them with the financial and entrepreneurial hubs of Tottori, Osaka, Kyoto, and Kagawa – a boost to any fledgling business or farm. Secondly, the elderly see the investment as a positive acknowledgement of their villages, which they take pride in. Lastly, the LDP recognises that targeting funding to areas where it can pick up seats electorally is an effective way to maintain power. This is the cocktail that has sustained its almost unbroken power for more than 70 years.

This strategic investment has boosted rural enthusiasm to vote. In the 2017 election, just 1/3rd of voters in their twenties cast a ballot, compared to 72% of 60-69-year-olds. In a country that has the fifth-lowest turnout of 41 developed nations, this can have profound ramifications. Not only does turnout distort the result, so does the electoral system. Akin to how the US allocates the same number of senate seats to California (with a population of 40 million) as it does to Wyoming (with a population of just 500,000), Japan operates under the same system. Rural areas have just as much sway as urban centres.

This strategy has been criticised as a mechanism for the skewing of domestic priorities, and fundamentally implementing the wishes of the minority on the majority. But, the LDP’s pork barrel politics works, and it has no intention of abandoning it. 

‘TINA: There Is No Alternative’ - or is there?

Japan’s opposition made a concerted effort in this election to break its losing streak and formed an alliance. The centre-left Constitutional Democrats merged with the centre-right Democratic Party for People, Communist Party, and left-wing populist Reiwa Shinsengumi. Even standing down candidates to present a unified front against the LDP, the alliance formed a common policy platform which included:

  • Opposing LDP revisions to Article 9 – a long-standing ambition of Shinzo Abe and the LDP to expand government and military power.
  • Cut consumer taxation from 10% to 5%, whilst increasing taxes on the wealthy.
  • End Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy and transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
  • Investigate the elements of corruption of the Abe and Suga premierships.

The alliance also pledged some bold, progressive social policies, including the introduction of LGBTQ equality laws, laws to allow same-sex marriage, and laws to enable couples to adopt different surnames after marriage. These moves are certain to have alienated older, conservative voters.

Ironically, the largest beneficiary of this coalition was the right-wing populist Innovation Party. Gathering votes from conservatives frustrated with the LDP government, and from opposing voters who could not bring themselves to vote for a coalition that included communist parties – the party saw its representation quadruple in one night. The Osaka-centred Innovation Party promised to decentralise power from Tokyo, scale back government intervention, remove defence spending limits, and oppose Kishida’s ‘new capitalism’ agenda: a plan to redistribute wealth across the country, which has been compared to the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘common prosperity’ policy.

An unexpected outcome

Despite the rise of the right, the LDP held steady in its share of the vote. Only losing 23 seats, the LDP result is unquestionably the result of an era of rural and elderly dominance. It has had countless opportunities to strategically invest in supportive communities and has also been afforded uninterrupted opportunities to project its message on TV, radio, newspapers and social media across a country in which door-to-door canvassing is prohibited by law. 

Japan’s alliance parties lost seats despite adopting a unified policy stance and choreographed electoral arrangement. The leader of the alliance’s largest component party blamed the disappointing results on the party’s weakness and failures since 2017. 

It seems as though for the LDP, pork-barrel politics works and wins. A danger to democracy or a successful electoral strategy? Ultimately, it seems when the minority votes reliably, the government wins.