Parliamentary Democracy in Japan

Why Do Japan and Italy Change Prime Ministers So Often?


In the 1990s both Italy and Japan introduced single-seat constituencies to their electoral systems in an attempt to encourage two-party politics. Since then both have had frequent changes of prime minister. Political scientist Ikeya Tomoaki examines the similarities and differences in the workings of the two countries’ political systems.

It has often been noted that Japanese and Italian politics share similarities going back a number of decades. In 1955 Japan’s two conservative parties merged to form the Liberal Democratic Party, and the left-wing and right-wing Socialists were reunited in the Japan Socialist Party. There were hopes that this would lead to a two-party political system where power would alternate between the parties at a reasonable frequency. The reality, however, was that in the years that followed the conservatives ended up having about twice as many parliamentary seats as the socialists, producing what came to be called a “one-and-a-half-party system,” where the LDP never lost power to the JSP.

A similar situation emerged at around the same time in Italy. Power was never transferred from the number-one Christian Democratic Party to the number-two Italian Communist Party, and there seemed to be no prospect that it ever would be. Prime ministers came and went, and cabinets were reshuffled, but the Christian Democrats always remained in power after national elections. This led to suggestions that Italy’s two-party system was broken and to concerns, just as in Japan, about corruption arising from long-term rule by a single party.

Increased Turnover of Prime Ministers Following 1990s Electoral Reform

Heightened demands for political reform brought changes to the electoral systems in both countries at around the same time—1993 in Italy and 1994 in Japan. Although the details differed somewhat, both Italy and Japan adopted systems consisting mainly of “first past the post” single-seat constituencies, with smaller sets of seats assigned by proportional representation. The introduction of single-seat constituencies was expected to promote two-party politics and thereby achieve the objective of having power periodically change hands between the parties . 

Italian and Japanese prime ministers have changed often in recent years, and this has also been cited as a similarity between the two countries’ political systems. From the Carlo Ciampi cabinet launched in April 1993 through the current Enrico Letta cabinet established in April 2013, there have been 13 cabinets and 8 prime ministers in Italy. In Japan, from the Hosokawa Morihiro cabinet that took office in August 1993 to the current Abe Shinzō cabinet formed in December 2012, there have been 18 cabinets and 13 prime ministers. If we restrict our view to the period since Japan’s current electoral system was implemented (in the House of Representatives election of 1996), then we start with the Hashimoto Ryūtarō cabinet of November 1996, giving a total of 14 cabinets and 10 prime ministers; there were 10 cabinets and 6 prime ministers over the same period in Italy.

The turnover rate of government leaders in Japan and Italy is much higher than in other parliamentary democracies like Germany or Britain. From 1993 to the present, Germany has had a mere three chancellors (Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder, and Angela Merkel), while Britain has had just four prime ministers (John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron). Why have Japan and Italy had so many leadership changes?

One important difference that many have cited is the role of the upper house in these countries’ bicameral legislatures. Germany’s Bundesrat represents the country’s 16 Länder (federal states) at the national level, and the powers of Britain’s House of Lords are severely limited. In neither country does the upper house have the power to push the government leader out of office.

In Japan, if a bill passed by the House of Representatives (the lower house) is subsequently rejected, revised, or not acted on within 60 days by the House of Councillors, it can still become law if the lower house passes it again by a two-thirds majority. Although the superiority of the lower house is thus defined in the Constitution, the two-thirds majority requirement is a high hurdle to clear, meaning that the upper house actually wields substantial power. In Italy, the two houses are equal in status, and a government cannot be formed without majority approval from both. So the upper house is relatively strong in both Japan and Italy, but is this alone the cause of the frequent changes of prime minister in the two countries?

Repeated Changes of Government in Italy

After the new electoral system was introduced in Italy, a center-right coalition government was voted into office in the 1994 election, a center-left coalition achieved victory two years later in the 1996 election, and the center-right coalition returned to power in 2001. In 2005, the voting system was changed again, introducing proportional representation with a majority premium. The center-left won in the next election, which held in 2006, and the center-right came back again in 2008. Every election brought a change of ruling coalition, so the prime minister naturally changed each time. The changes of government following elections are an intended outcome of electoral reform. The problem is that elections have been held at shorter intervals than the five-year terms for which legislators are elected. 

The equality of Italy’s two parliamentary houses brought instability to the prime minister’s post, and this problem became more pronounced following the electoral system change in 2005. The new system apportions seats based on the percentage of votes won, but in order to ensure greater stability, the party (or coalition) with the most votes is also given extra “premium” seats.

The Italian lower house, called the Chamber of Deputies, has 630 seats; 340 of these are given to the party (or coalition) that wins a plurality of the votes. But it is difficult to win a stable majority in the upper house, where premium seats are allocated on a regional basis. When Romano Prodi formed a government after the 2006 election, his coalition had only two more seats in the upper house than the opposition, so a tiny party with only three seats was able to bring down the government in 2008 by exiting the coalition. The center-left coalition won in 2013, but it could not secure a majority in the upper house, and it took two months for a coalition government to be formed.

Putting Technocrats in Power to Avert Crises

The electoral reform of 1993 changed the rules of the game in Italian politics, and this was followed by a change of players as well, with the dissolution of the Christian Democratic Party in 1994 and the demise of the other traditional parties, which were replaced by the Forza Italia movement and other new parties. These two changes were seen as representing the transition from the “First Republic” to the “Second Republic.” The reform, however, did not bring an end to the multiplicity of political parties. The 1993 and 2005 electoral laws have encouraged the various parties to form coalitions, resulting in the formation of the center-left and center-right groupings. This is an improvement in some ways, but the result is still a long way from a two-party system. Coalitions of political parties can easily break apart, which is exactly what happened in 2008 and on other occasions. 

When there is no election after a cabinet dissolves, choosing a new prime minister is exceedingly troublesome. Presidents typically play an important role in this situation. They act as arbitrators, appointing a new prime minister after consulting with party leaders and reaching an agreement. Prime ministers and cabinet ministers do not have to be members of parliament, and there have been cases where non-members have been tapped to form a government in order to avert a political crisis. Since the Carlo Ciampi government in 1993, Italy has had four prime ministers who were not members of parliament.

The cabinets of Lamberto Dini (1995–96) and Mario Monti (November 2011–April 2013) in fact consisted entirely of ministers without seats in parliament. These technocrat cabinets aim to execute specific policy objectives, and serve as caretaker governments. Naturally, they do not stay in power for long.

To judge from the points I have noted above, it appears that the frequent changes of prime minister in Italy are due to a combination of factors: The equal status of the two houses of parliament, the growth in the number of parties and the resulting instability of coalition governments, and the appointment of technocrat prime ministers have all led to more frequent elections, and as an intended outcome of electoral reform, each election has led to a change of parties in power, meaning a new prime minister. 

The Revolving Door of the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office

In Japan, a coalition of opposition parties ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party after the 1993 general election. However, the Liberal Democrats returned to power the following year by forming a coalition with the Socialists, their traditional opponents. At that point they agreed to have Socialist leader Murayama Tomiichi become prime minister, but in 1996 they also retook the premiership, which was assumed by LDP President Hashimoto Ryūtarō. The LDP maintained power in a series of coalition governments under the new electoral system until the 2009 general election, when the Democratic Party of Japan drove it from power. Changes of parties in power are rarer in Japan than they are in Italy. Although Japanese governments are formed by coalitions, the number of parties in each coalition is smaller and less changeable than in Italy. Furthermore, there have been no examples of cabinets formed by unelected technocrats. Nevertheless, prime ministers come and go more often than in Italy. Why is this?

Does the power held by the House of Councillors cause the frequent change of prime ministers? Elections for the House of Councillors are held regularly every three years, generally occurring in the intervals between general elections for the lower house (whose members are elected for four-year terms), and it is certainly true that the results of these elections can have an impact on the administration. For example, following the defeat of the LDP in the 1998 upper house election, Prime Minister Hashimoto was forced to step down midway through his electoral term. Even if the prime minister does not resign, a defeat in an upper house election can weaken the administration’s political foundation.

Particularly in the case of “divided government,” where the ruling party or coalition lacks a majority in the upper house, the split causes instability in government administration and weakens the prime minister’s authority. In recent years Abe Shinzō (who served his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007), Fukuda Yasuo (Abe’s successor, 2007–8), and the DPJ’s Kan Naoto (2010–11) have all been pushed out of office while there was a divided government. Divided governments and the powerful upper house alone, however, do not fully explain why prime ministers change more frequently in Japan than in Italy. Prime ministers Mori Yoshirō (2000–2001), Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6), and the DPJ’s Hatoyama Yukio (2009–10) all left office when the government was not divided.

The Negative Impact of the LDP’s Term Limits 

The missing element from this analysis is the effect of the LDP’s internal regulations in shortening prime ministers’ terms in office. The term of the LDP presidency is set at three years (and was only two years until 2003). At the end of this term the president must seek reelection or step down even if he is only partly through his electoral term as prime minister, as is generally the case. Some have argued that the posts of party president and prime minister should be separated, but so far this has not come to pass. As the situation presently stands, if a prime minister fails to win reelection as LDP president, he loses the premiership as well. 

So the party that produces most of Japan’s prime ministers has its own mechanism for replacing them regularly. An example is Fukuda Takeo, who lost the LDP’s presidential election in 1978 and had to resign as prime minister. Although there have been no similar cases in recent years, it is very strange for a ruling party to pull the rug out from under its own leader like this, and it shows disregard for the will of other parties in the ruling coalition and for the general public.

To make matters worse, party rules state that if an LDP president resigns in the middle of his term, the new president’s term is just the remainder of his predecessor’s. There is also a rule stating that presidents cannot serve more than two terms in succession. So the limits placed on LDP leaders by their own party are extremely severe. Koizumi, who was still very popular with the public when he stepped down as prime minister at the end of his second term as LDP president in 2006, did not even have the option of seeking another term at that point (leaving aside the question of whether he wanted to stay on).

In Britain, by comparison, though Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was forced to leave office when the Conservatives voted her out as their party leader in 1990, this was after she had been leading the country for more than 10 years. The Conservative and Labour parties hold leadership elections, of course, but there are no set terms for leaders. In Germany, party leaders do have fixed terms, and sometimes they are voted out, but the party leader’s post is not necessarily linked to the post of chancellor. For example, Gerhard Schröder served as chancellor (1998–2005) without being the head of the Social Democratic Party.

In Japan, there are often cases of feuding within ruling parties, which lead to demands from ruling-party Diet members for the prime minister to step down (this is not limited to the LDP but was also seen in the DPJ when it was in power). These ruling-party members are supposed to support their leader. Instead, they instigate movements to topple the government, so it is no wonder that cabinets lack stability. The lifetime of any prime minister is a function of his party members’ support. 

Party Unity and Prime Ministerial Competence

Since prime ministers change so often in Japan and Italy, there are calls in both countries for the upper house to be weakened. Italy has already formed a commission to consider reforming the constitution, and deliberations have begun. But even if Italy scraps its bicameral legislature and converts to a single-house system, the frequent changeover of prime ministers will not stop as long as the number of political parties remains so high.

Similarly in Japan, the situation will not change as long as party leadership elections are held so often and ruling party members continue to demand that prime ministers step down. 

In order for Japan’s prime ministers to stay in office longer, it may be important to reform the institution of the upper house, but what is probably even more important is to achieve unity within the party whose leader is the prime minister and between that party and its coalition partners. And of course, it is also vital that the prime minister be highly competent in managing his party and the ruling coalition in order to push forward with the political agenda.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 19, 2013. Title photo: Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō [second from left ] and Italy’s Enrico Letta [ second from right] at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, June 18, 2013 [photo courtesy AP/Aflo].)

Japanese and Italian Prime Ministers since 1993
(month of inauguration in parentheses)

Japan Italy
1993 Hosokawa Morihiro (Aug.) Carlo Ciampi* (Apr.)
1994 Hata Tsutomu (Apr.)
Murayama Tomiichi (June)
Silvio Berlusconi (May)
1995   Lamberto Dini* (Jan.)
1996 Hashimoto Ryūtarō (Jan.) Romano Prodi (May)
1998 Obuchi Keizō (July) Massimo D’Alema (Oct.)
2000 Mori Yoshirō (Apr.) Giuliano Amato* (Apr.)
2001 Koizumi Jun’ichirō (Apr.) Berlusconi (June)
2006 Abe Shinzō (Sep.)

Romano Prodi (May)

2007 Fukuda Yasuo (Sep.)
2008 Asō Tarō (Sep.)

Berlusconi (May)

2009 Hatoyama Yukio (Sep.)
2010 Kan Naoto (June)
2011 Noda Yoshihiko (Sep.) Mario Monti* (Nov.)
2012 Abe (Dec.)  
2013   Enrico Letta (Apr.)

*Not a member of parliament.

politics Diet reform LDP Lower House constitution Abe Italy upper house electoral systems