Election System Produces “Policy-Free” Politicians


The nature of an election system, needless to say, has a major impact on politics and political parties. The current system in place for elections to the House of Representatives in Japan combines single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, and has led to politics centered on two main political parties: the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party.

One-Party Rule and the Multiseat System

House of Representatives elections during most of the post–World War II period took place under a multiseat constituency system, in which three to five representatives were elected for each election district. This system, combined with a variety of other factors including global politics during the Cold War, contributed to the emergence of the LDP’s longstanding dominance. LDP governments ironed out policy through vigorous give-and-take between several internal party factions (habatsu). In a sense, they were “coalition governments” comprised of those internal factions.

The existence of factions within the ruling LDP was closely linked to the multiseat constituency system. Under that election system, a political party hoping to secure a majority on its own, and to maintain a hold on power for an extended period of time, had to field numerous candidates for each election district. With as many as five seats up for grabs in some districts, the LDP candidates had to battle not only politicians from other parties, but also each other. If there were, say, five LDP candidates in a given district, they would belong to different internal factions and have to emphasize policy differences with respect to rivals from the same party.

This situation meant that factions took precedence over the party as a whole, and politicians would campaign as individuals rather than as party representatives during elections. This was the impetus for the creation of support groups to back individual politicians (kōenkai), which in turn impeded the organizational development and modernization of political parties.

Election Reform to Facilitate Changes of Government

In 1994 Japan switched from the multiseat constituency system to a parallel voting system comprised of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation. This new system was implemented in the House of Representatives election in 1996 and has been in place ever since. There was a determination to bring an end to the political decay resulting from the long era of single-party rule, and to establish a two-party system in which elections could bring about periodic changes in the ruling party.

Japan did in fact have a change of government in the summer of 2009, when the general election brought the DPJ into power for the first time. The process leading up to that point involved political parties splitting and realigning, culminating in the birth of the DPJ in 1998, who steadily gathered strength until finally becoming the ruling party.

In the case of elections for single-seat constituencies, the odds are strongly in favor of candidates belonging to one of the two big parties, either the LDP or DPJ. For the smaller parties, the only recourse is to focus on winning a seat in a proportional representation district.

Unprincipled Politicians Enter the Diet

Under the current election system, joining either the LDP or DPJ is the logical choice for anyone thinking about entering politics. If an aspiring politician wishes to contest a district where there is already an LDP candidate, it makes sense to run as a DPJ candidate regardless of personal policy preferences—and vice-versa.

Although the 1994 election reform was meant to encourage election battles between two main parties, the ironic outcome is that it has encouraged politicians to base their party affiliation on the specific situation in their election district, rather than on their own policy principles. Indeed, we are now in a situation where people who are willing to accept any sort of policy platform can be elected to the Diet.

The cooperation between the LDP, New Kōmeitō, and the DPJ on a comprehensive reform of the tax and social security systems also stems from this situation where policy differences are blurred. The policies advocated by the DPJ government of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko—on such issues as security, tax reform, and energy—have turned out to be essentially the same policies pursued by former LDP governments. Even if each party has its own policy platform, the priority for Diet members is to get elected; policy takes a back seat. Foreign observers must be scratching their heads at how easily Japanese politicians enter unprincipled alliances.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 24, 2012.)

Noda Yoshihiko Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party DPJ LDP Masuzoe Yōichi change of government one-party rule single-seat constituencies proportional representation districts comprehensive reform of the tax and social security systems multiseat constituencies