–LDP’s landslide election victory mainly ascribable to mixed electoral system
–Unstable decision-making process is a political problem for Japan
–New government should set policy priorities and utilize advisory panels
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Komeito party jointly won more than 320 seats in the latest election for the House of Representatives, achieving a change of power after three years and four months of government by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The change in government through the lower-house election, resulting from voters’ dissatisfaction with the DPJ, could have been anticipated by the reform of the nation’s electoral system since the 1990s.
The DPJ, which scored a landslide victory in the previous lower-house election, ended up changing prime minister every year and failed to deliver on most of the campaign pledges in its manifesto. Although the LDP does not appear to have implemented sufficient internal reforms while in opposition, it has regained its strength due to the DPJ’s blunders and the proliferation of small parties, which undeniably fomented voter distrust in politics. The lowest voter turnout in a postwar lower-house election can be taken as testimony.
Voters’ cautious support for the LDP and Komeito was verified by the wide gap in the ratio of seats they won to the total number of seats between single-seat electoral districts and proportional-representation constituencies. The chart below shows the ratios of seats the top party has won to the total number of seats in single-seat and proportional-representation constituencies in each lower-house election since the introduction of the current system combining single-seat and proportional-representation constituencies. The LDP’s overwhelming victory in the last election, unlike those marked by the party in 2005 and by the DPJ in 2009, resulted mainly from sweeping victories in single-seat electoral districts, according to the chart.
The shares of votes and ratios of seats won to the total number of seats in proportional-representation constituencies cannot be regarded as the same as approval ratings for parties because the effects of campaign strategies need to be taken into account. Nevertheless, the wide discrepancy deserves an explanation.
Many press reports and other comments following vote tallying described the election result as a feature of the single-seat constituency system. But the view is hardly accurate. There are numerous studies on relations between the share of votes and the ratio of seats won to the total number of seats conducted through elections in Britain and other countries. They have proved that the number of seats won to the total number of seats is proportional to the cube of the share of votes. The number of seats a party wins, therefore, is greatly affected by a small change in its share of votes. The result of the latest lower-house election considerably deviates from the norm.
It was more decisively affected by the influence of the electoral system combining single-seat and proportional-representation constituencies, as pointed out by some political scientists such as former Yale University faculty member Jun Saito. The existing lower-house election system, which permits small parties to survive by adopting a mixed electoral system, can induce the defection of lawmakers from their parties who are unwilling to follow their leaders’ unpopular policies, as in the case of the DPJ, and the establishment of too many small parties. In addition to this trend, “third pole” parties, such as the Japan Restoration Party, fielded a large number of new candidates in the latest election, causing an increase in constituencies having three or more major candidates.
As a result, a feature of campaigns in proportional-representation constituencies, namely competition among many parties stressing relatively small policy differences, was carried into single-seat electoral districts. But as a candidate who receives more votes than other candidates in a single-seat constituency secures the sole legislative seat there, the LDP won more than 70 percent of seats in the lower house even though it was supported by only 20-30 percent of voters in terms of approval rating and share of votes.
The new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is based on more than two-thirds of lower-house seats but without a voter mandate. More than half of voters in public opinion polls after the election believe the LDP won too many seats, while many of them do not expect the party to push through measures it pledged during its election campaign. Due in part to the LDP’s failure to live up to voter expectations following its overwhelming victory under Junichiro Koizumi in the 2005 election for the lower house, which was essentially a referendum on the privatization of postal services, the new administration is expected to proceed somewhat cautiously for the time being.
As the number of seats held by the ruling bloc in the House of Councillors falls short of a majority, the continuation of the so-called “twisted Diet” is likely to act as a drag on the new government. As lawmakers in the ruling bloc said before the lower-house election that the election for the House of Councillors in the summer of 2013 would be a real showdown, the coalition is expected to exert great energy to secure a majority of seats in the upper house at the election and two-thirds of them by tying up with the Your Party and the Japan Restoration Party.
But it is another question whether the new administration should take a cautious stance due to the absence of a “mandate” and the parliamentary “twist.” This is because Japan’s political problems in recent years, especially since the twist was created as a result of the 2007 upper-house election, are traceable to the unstable process of policy decision-making rather than the lack of work in pursuing actual policies.
When the LDP held the majority of seats in both chambers of the Diet, it could pass bills almost as planned. Even during the days of the last coalition government, agreements within it sufficed as long as the alliance had a majority of seats in the two houses. Under a divided Diet, however, coordination within the ruling bloc is not enough, making it necessary to create a way of securing a majority of seats in the upper house in order to pass bills.
A grand coalition between the LDP and the DPJ planned by the administration of Yasuo Fukuda in 2007 and a three-party agreement that achieved results for integrated reform of the social security and taxation systems under the administration of Yoshihiko Noda were attempts to address the question of how to form a majority in the upper house.
The new Abe administration is reportedly intending to seek a majority in the upper house through cooperation with opposition parties on a policy-by-policy basis, instead of trying to expand the ruling coalition to secure more than half of the votes in the chamber. The idea is the same as that of the Noda administration. But this approach has a drawback because opposition parties are obviously entirely free in deciding who to support. When support ratings for the ruling party and the Cabinet are low, negotiations with opposition parties tend to become stalemated.
To avoid this eventuality, the ruling party primarily deals with issues that are highly likely to win consent from opposition parties, and in such cases the priority of issues is determined by the opposition parties. But when a ruling party and its new administration cannot expect strong support from voters, as in the latest case, attempts to form a majority on a policy-by-policy basis are not the best approach.
Greater attention should be paid to the fact that the ruling coalition has secured an overwhelming majority of seats in the lower house. Using its two-thirds majority in the house to pass a bill on a second vote after the upper house’s rejection of it is likely to be criticized by voters and the mass media. The new administration needs to consider limited and wise use of the two-thirds majority rule by clarifying the priority of bills and issuing a statement by the prime minister when a high-priority bill is presented to the Diet that it intends to put to a second vote if necessary.
It has been made clear that the new administration will revive the Council on Fiscal and Economic Policy that had been in a dormant state under the DPJ-led government. The council and other panels, including the Council for Science and Technology Policy, were established in 2001 as the fruits of work to reinforce the functions of the Cabinet in the 1990s and played major roles under the Koizumi administration. If these organs are used again to establish a priority for issues, the unstable decision-making process of the past five years may come to an end.
But it should be recognized that their use would represent a countermeasure for the present. If the two-thirds majority needed for the lower house’s passage of bills on a second vote becomes a victory or defeat bar for the ruling coalition, the decision-making process could be destabilized again unless it is subject to strict discipline. For example, opposition to the prime minister within the ruling camp may gain momentum and put pressure on policy changes by threatening a rebellion on a second vote if the ruling parties suffer a setback in the upper-house election or the support ratings for the Cabinet drop.
To avoid this situation, the relationship of power and authority between the two houses of the Diet needs to be sorted out by parliamentary reform, with the electoral systems for the chambers being revised at the same time. The current situation in which the lower and upper houses stand on an equal footing and hold elections under mixed electoral systems is unusual by international standards. A comprehensive electoral system reform should therefore be carried out.
Translation of an article carried in the Dec. 24, 2012 edition of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper, with permission to post on this website from Nikkei Inc. Unauthorized copying and reprinting are prohibited.
Satoshi Machidori was born in 1971 and graduated from the Faculty of Law at Kyoto University. He later received a doctorate from the university. He specializes in comparative politics.