Low voter turnout could erode Japan PM Abe's call for fresh mandate

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo November 21, 2014.

TOKYO - Japanese voters, puzzled as to why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is calling an election now and unimpressed by opposition alternatives, may shun a Dec. 14 election in record numbers.

That could help Abe's ruling coalition win the poll for parliament's lower house, but also erode any claim of a new, strong mandate for his economic revival plan.

A survey by the mass circulation Yomiuri daily published on Sunday showed 65 per cent of voters were interested in the election, down 15 points from the 2012 poll that brought Abe back to power - with record low turnout of about 59 per cent.

With his coalition holding two-thirds of the seats in the lower house and two years left in lawmakers' terms, many voters are perplexed.

"I don't understand why they are calling an election," said Hiromi Tanaka, a music teacher. Tanaka said she planned to vote but thought many who, like her, don't hold regular jobs would not. "They don't think it has anything to do with them."

It hasn't always been this way.

Just shy of a decade ago, Japan's electorate eagerly turned out to hand then-premier Junichiro Koizumi a huge mandate for a reform agenda that was supposed to reboot the stagnant economy.

Four years later in 2009, they even more enthusiastically gave the novice Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a chance to see if its pledges to put more cash in consumers' hands would work.

Then, in 2012, voters turned back, but somewhat wearily if the record low turnout is any guide, to Abe's conservative LDP, hoping the new leader would rev up the economy with his recipe of hyper-easy monetary policy, spending and structural reform.

Now, Abe is asking for a fresh show of confidence in his struggling "Abenomics" strategy in hopes he can cement his grip on power before his soggy ratings slip further.


The 60-year-old prime minister insists Abenomics is the "only path" to pry growth out of Japan's shrinking, fast-ageing population and indeed, Tokyo share prices have surged and big corporations' profits ballooned since the LDP returned to power.

But real wages have not kept up with the inflation generated by a massive Bank of Japan stimulus programme and an initial sales tax rise to 8 per cent from April, part of a plan to curb Japan's huge public debt. Abe said last week he would postpone for 18 months plans to raise the tax to 10 per cent from next October.

The main opposition DPJ says its "bottom up" strategy focussing on the middle class would do better. But even the party's No. 2 leader, Yukio Edano, admits the party hasn't fully regained voter confidence after a bashing in the 2012 election.

Given doubts about Abenomics after the economy slipped into recession in the second quarter, and disillusionment with the opposition, voters may stay home in record numbers, experts say.

Surveys show those intending to vote for the LDP far surpass those who will opt for the opposition, but many are undecided.

A survey by the Nikkei business daily published on Monday showed 35 per cent planned to vote for the LDP in proportional representation districts compared to 9 per cent for the DPJ. But 45 per cent were undecided, in line with other media surveys.

Tanaka, no fan of the LDP, says she's at a loss over which opposition party to back given how weak they appear.

"I don't want to waste my vote," she said.

Some, figuring the LDP-led coalition will win a majority anyway, could register protest votes, leaving Abe in power, but weakened, said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.

"More likely is that those who feel there is no choice don't vote so turnout is low, the LDP gears up its machine and the opposition splits its vote," he added.