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Early Elections Called in Japan

Via the BBC:  Japan PM Shinzo Abe calls snap election in December

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called an early election, two years ahead of schedule.

At a news briefing, he said he would dissolve parliament later this week and was also delaying a planned but unpopular increase in sales tax.

Mr Abe was elected two years ago with an ambitious plan to revive the economy, but has struggled to do so.

His popularity has fallen but he is expected to win the election, which will take place in mid-December.

"I will dissolve the lower house on 21 [November]," Mr Abe said.

Mr Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, already have a majority in the lower house, but analysts said Mr Abe hoped to consolidate power over an opposition party which is in disarray.

He also wants public support to continue to press ahead with "Abenomics", his ambitious plan to kick-start Japan’s stagnant economic growth using heavy government spending and economic reforms.

"I need to hear the voice of the people," Mr Abe said. "I will step down if we fail to keep our majority because that would mean our Abenomics is rejected."

I must confess, the ability to be able to hold elections in a way that directly gives the voters the chance to speak on the policy direction of the country makes me a bit jealous.

For those unfamiliar:  in parliamentary systems the PM can call early elections and this is done for a variety of strategic reasons.  In this case Abe clearly is concerned that his declining popularity would make reelection difficult in 2016 (and influence policy actions in the short term).  This move could lead to a) an affirmation of his policies, and b) an extension of his party’s control of parliament and, therefore, the government (i.e., keeping him and his ministers in the executive).

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. There is also something to be said, though, for the idea of the stability of governments. For example, the agreement between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in the wake of the 2010 elections in the United Kingdom that neither side would force an election before 2015.

    Of course, the idea of the same Parliamentary Government being in power for five years isn’t appealing to me either. Which is why I don’t really object to the idea of midterm elections every two years.

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  2. Hal_10000 says:

    Abe’s economic policies, while popular, aren’t working. Japan is now back in recession. Abe is just trying to force an election now before his popularity falls too far or the opposition gets better organized. It’s a pretty naked political ploy but it’s his only shot of retaining power.

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  3. @Doug Mataconis: But this is not an example of instability.

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  4. @Doug Mataconis: Indeed, if frequent elections are evidence of “instability” are you not arguing that the House of Reps in the US is an “unstable” institution? 😉

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  5. @Steven L. Taylor:

    No, but it is an example of a Prime Minister using their ability to call early elections to try to gain electoral and political advantage, even if it is only temporary.

    I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

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  6. @Doug Mataconis: You are changing your argument 😉

    Seriously, though: the notion that the voters would have a direct say in the country’s policy direction is a bad thing in what way?

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  7. Trumwill says:

    I think the argument that Doug is trying to make is similar to the one that HAL more succinctly makes. The ability to call elections to confront a particular issue is also the ability to time elections that boost your odds of victory (or reduce your odds of defeat).

    I go back and forth on this. On the one hand, reliably scheduled elections have the advantage of not being able to be timed for the benefit of the majority party.

    On the other hand, you can have an unpopular president for years on end without the ability to have a “no confidence” vote.

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  8. @Trumwill: A real, albeit a bit snarky (and yet still very much on point) response is: objecting to politics in elections is like objecting to gambling in Casablanca, yes?

    However, to the key issue for me would be this: what is better, an election in which the voters are able to register their views on the country’s policy direction or an election in which the outcome is simply to set the stage for the next election (i.e., the one we just had here in the US)?

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  9. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Not changing, so much as trying to clarify my point. @Trumwill does largely capture where my problem lies here. The ability to use the power that Abe is using here to boost his political power by essentially calling elections at arbitrary times seems wrong to me on some level. Elections that are scheduled at regular intervals, rather than ones that can be called when they would be to the best political advantage of the majority, seem to be me to be quite desirable.

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  10. @Doug Mataconis: You eliding the basic issue:

    he key issue for me would be this: what is better, an election in which the voters are able to register their views on the country’s policy direction or an election in which the outcome is simply to set the stage for the next election (i.e., the one we just had here in the US)?

    Having a vague sense that this process is undesirable is not much of an argument. (Indeed, I wold suggest that your sense is driven by the fact that we are typically taught in school in the US that parliamentary systems are “unstable” and are also given a vague sense that early elections are problematic because, really, we aren’t used to the notion). I used to have similar vague impressions of those systems myself.

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  11. @Doug Mataconis: Back to this:

    The ability to use the power that Abe is using here to boost his political power by essentially calling elections at arbitrary times seems wrong to me on some level.

    But note that a) he is running a risk, and b) the deciders will be the voters. How is this wrong–that in a representative democracy that the voters would have a say in who would be making major policy decisions?

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  12. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m not objecting to politics in elections so much as I am concerned about politics influencing the way (in this case, the timing) that elections are held.

    I actually (gasp) also have concerns about when this happens here, too. Or more analogous, bond issue elections are often scheduled for when they have the highest likelihood of passage. Sure, at the end of the day it’s up to the voter, but tinkering with election process to achieve desired outcomes is problematic. That’s what it looks like is going on here. Abe is calling elections now because – while yes, it is a risk – it increases the likelihood that he’s going to win, and re-starts the timer before he has to go up for election again.

    Is this better or worse than having a president who lacks a mandate? Hard to say. But recognizing that there are trade-offs is not inherently rooted in what we learned in grade school.

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  13. @Trumwill: As the quote goes, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. As such, if the options are politics sans elections and politics with elections, I tend to prefer the latter.

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  14. @Trumwill:

    I actually (gasp) also have concerns about when this happens here, too. Or more analogous, bond issue elections are often scheduled for when they have the highest likelihood of passage. Sure, at the end of the day it’s up to the voter, but tinkering with election process to achieve desired outcomes is problematic.

    Good example.

    It reminds me of when I was growing up in New Jersey. School Board elections used to take place in April, on a day that had no correlation with anything else being contested in a given year (the typical primary election day at the time was the second Tuesday in June), This would also be the election at which bonds to fund schools would be on the ballot and such. The fact that these things were being scheduled for a time when most people would not be aware that there was even an election — combined with the fact that school board candidates most often ran unopposed — was obviously advantageous to those for whom passage of the bond issues, etc was in their interest.

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  15. @Doug Mataconis: However, that comparisons is pretty lousy. An early election in a parliamentary system is like scheduling a presidential election–it draws attention. It is not that same as a bond election.

    Average voter turnout in Japan for the last 20ish years is ~65%. I would wager that the numbers for the upcoming elections will not be that different.

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  16. (Part of the point of scheduling a bond election at an odd time is to decrease turnout).

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  17. Looks like more recent turnout has been lower (mid-50ish).

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  18. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Weren’t you saying a couple weeks ago that we should do away with mid-terms?

    I’m not sure anybody here is talking about doing away with elections. I think there is some resistance and/or recognition of the pitfalls of allowing the incumbents to time the elections.

    I like elections! Just not an unlimited number of them. I am skeptical of recall elections*, odd-year local and state elections, judicial elections, too many elected statewide positions, referenda**, and so on. It’s not a question of “yay elections!” or “boo elections!” but “Which elections and when?”

    * – I like them in theory, at least for executive positions. For the same upside I see of the parliamentary system. Except that the more I see them work on the ground, the less fond of them I am.

    ** – This one I don’t like in theory, though I am coming around on them a little bit. In some ways, it seems like the only opportunity for Oregonians to vote down unauthorized immigrant drivers licenses and Arkansans to boost the minimum wage without having to vote for party opposite of their preference. So I’m not as sure on this as I used to be. Even so, it seems like we have an excessive number of them.

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  19. @Steven L. Taylor:

    It may not be directly the same, but it shows how the ability to schedule elections at politically advantageous times can help to manipulate the results of the election itself, IMO

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  20. @Trumwill: The bottom line that I am getting at here (and in my critique of our mid-terms) is the degree to which there is a clear connection between citizens and elected officials’ behavior.

    What an early election of the type under discussion provides is the ability of the voters to actually indicate their preferences in the context of actual policy direction. This is about the accountability loop of representative democracy (and not about the frequency of elections).

    Our mid-term, however, for a variety of reasons, actually did not provide any specific policy connection, either in specific or in general, but rather is just a setup for the next round of elections.

    To borrow and reformulate your phrase: It’s not a question of “yay elections!” or “boo elections!” but “How well are elections actually enabling voters to effectively communicate with those who govern us?”

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  21. @Doug Mataconis:

    It may not be directly the same, but it shows how the ability to schedule elections at politically advantageous times can help to manipulate the results of the election itself, IMO

    Every choice made in a system has an impact (including fixed terms).

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  22. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Agreed. And my point is that the ability to make this choice is, at least in my opinion, one of the flaws of a Parliamentary system, or at least an argument against such as system with anything other than regularly scheduled elections at set intervals.

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  23. @Doug Mataconis: You keep asserting it is a flaw, but you haven.t made an argument as to why.

    Why is is worse for Japan is Abe does not ask the voters about this policy direction?

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  24. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    To borrow and reformulate your phrase: It’s not a question of “yay elections!” or “boo elections!” but “How well are elections actually enabling voters to effectively communicate with those who govern us?”

    Is that what’s happening here? Is Abe holding elections because he wants to be held accountable? Or is he holding elections now because he’s less likely to be held accountable than if he holds them on schedule?

    Maybe Abe just thinks that democracy is totally awesome and this is all about democracy and not at all about political advantage. Good for him. And good for a system that can rely on such altruistic and democratic instincts.

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  25. @Trumwill: I fully understand Abe’s motives. Those motives do not mitigate that elections will have to take place.

    Option A: pursue the policies without a vote.

    Option B: pursue the policies after a vote.

    Which option is more democratic?

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  26. (BTW: I always assume all politicians are pursuing their own interests–that’s not the argument)

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  27. Trumwill says:

    I see it as:

    A) Abe pursues policies and in a couple years his is held accountable.

    B) Abe re-elected and has a new five years before his party has to worry about being held accountable for his new policies.

    There are some definite advantages to a parliamentary system, but this isn’t one of them.

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  28. @Trumwill: I don’t know. The notion that I would have to chance to have a say in advance of a policy direction, rather than simply punishing a politicians ex post facto has a bit of appeal.

    (Although, really, the feature I like the most here is not the timing of elections issue, but rather then notion that in parliamentary system elections have clearer consequences than do ours).

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  29. @Steven L. Taylor:

    It’s not a question of “asking voters” about a particular policy direction, it is about using the timing of elections to attempt to enhance political power. To use your logic, then should not a PM call elections prior to every important vote? And if that’s the case then we’re really dealing with something more akin to direct democracy than representative democracy. Perhaps direct democracy is better, personally I’m not sure because I am skeptical of the idea that majorities should always get what they want, but there are benefits to the idea of representative democracy that shouldn’t be ignored.

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  30. @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s not a question of “asking voters” about a particular policy direction

    Yes, because the last thing an election is is asking voters…

    I am not advocating direct democracy nor am I advocating plebiscitary democracy. I am noting that there ought to be a connection between voter preferences, elections, and those who make policy.

    There is a huge gulf between what I am talking about and majorities always getting what they want.

    there are benefits to the idea of representative democracy that shouldn’t be ignored.

    What else would you call legislative elections than “representative democracy”?

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  31. Just 'nutha... says:

    @Doug Mataconis: The problem that concerns you is solved/complicated by “validation rules.” In Washington, where I grew up, bond issues and levy issues were always contested at the time of state-wide or nationwide elections. The reason being that for a revenue measure to pass, it needed to be voted on by at least 60% of the people who voted in the previous statewide election in order to be “validated.”

    The complication came when voters (suddenly???) realized that one does not have to actually vote on all measures under consideration for the ballot to be valid. Voters opposed to revenue measures simply stopped voting no and resorted to voting “blank.” Non-votes were more powerful than votes simply because they subtracted from the validation level.

    BTW, last I checked, Washington eliminated validation.

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  32. Just 'nutha... says:

    @Trumwill:

    Even so, it seems like we have an excessive number of them.

    You figured that out! Congratulations, it’s a start. If more people can do the same, we’re on our way to real election reform.

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