Is it Time to Start Thinking about 2013?

As was predicted here around the time of the dissolution of the Diet the mechanics of the current Japanese political system makes it likely that the LDP-Komeito coalition, if not the LDP on its own, will get a majority on December 16th. At the official start of the election season on December 4th most of the mainstream media outlets have started to predict this very outcome This is despite the LDP’s support rate under Abe being less than stellar, and there being almost no enthusiasm for the party. This seems to have been a (what should have been obvious) stimulus to the likes of the JRP who will now look to turn their undivided attention to attacking the LDP. JRP 2IC Osaka Governor Matsui has even come out groveling to Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi, saying (日) that he and Hashimoto were in hindsight “too cheeky” and insufficiently respectful of “Watanabe-Sempai’s (political) life experience.” With the LDP the default option, uninspiring to many as it is, nothing short of some grand gesture/announcement by the two “third pole” parties is going to change the the narrative and outcome of this particular election. It is possible that they may turn around what looks to be a fait accompli, just unlikely at this point in time. This is because it is unfortunately too late to offload Ishihara and the other retro-conservatives of the Taiyo no Tou, and make a play for Your Party amalgamation. With the LDP lurking at around 20-25 percent in the PR vote, it does not have to do much better in the SMDs, if at all, than it did in the last disastrous election for the LDP, to acquire a majority this time around, given the rest of the vote will be split in the SMDs between the JRP/YP, the DPJ, and the Japan Future Party (JFP). This will look like a comprehensive victory, but the deeper numbers, as we will all know, will suggest anything but a mandate.

Which raises some interesting questions about the Japanese political system going forward. There has been discussion about the current configuration, of the “conservative” LDP, the “whatever-you-personally-want-to-label-them” JRP, the centrist DPJ, and the “liberal” JFP, being representative of the true realignment of Japanese politics, as opposed to a seemingly “forced” two party British/Westminster system. I had this discussion with good friend Bryce Wakefield recently; and friend of Sigma1, Michael Penn at Shingetsu News Agency, has recently put forward the same hypothesis in last week’s subscription-only “Tokyo Diplomat.” [So credit goes to them].

Given the complexity of the Japanese political system and the difficulty in identifying what we Westerners tend to perceive as “left” and “right” in the Japanese ideological spectrum, then this seems a pretty solid hypothesis. We may have to give up on a two-party system – and that might be ok. As long as the parties themselves are somewhat internally coherent (not quite there yet of course) then having more than two (incoherent) parties may not be a bad thing.

If this is the case, then Japan clearly has the wrong political system. If as is predicted the LDP does go on to win quite convincingly on the back of 20 percent support in the Proportional Representation system (ie their “true” support level) then something is quite clearly wrong. First-Past-the-Post systems limit political representation for the benefit of simplifying the political system and promoting stable, but still democratic, governance. However, this is more for systems where two major political parties fiercely compete but are likely to fall a bit short of getting 50 percent of the vote from time to time on their own. However, not this short. 20 and even 30 percent “true” support translating into perhaps 60 percent of the number of seats seems absurd. It clearly undermines too much the “popular democracy” component of the democracy-governance trade-off of FPP systems (notwithstanding the PR component of the current Japanese system). Throw in the fact that rural votes are worth two times as much as urban votes (not to mention this being unconstitutional), then it becomes an absolute farce.

This is not to say that a return to the Multiple Member Districts (MMD) of old is desirable. That would be a step backwards. It does raise questions regarding Noda and Abe’s plan/promise to cut the number of seats during the 2013 regular Diet session, however. When you have four parties which all deserve some kind of voice, why cut the PR seats? Especially when they are the only part of the system that gives certain citizens an “equal value” vote. Cutting the seats to save on waste is noble enough, but doing so in a way that might enshrine permanent but unpopular LDP-Komeito rule in the medium-term will be undesirable, even for the DPJ. The DPJ is unlikely to ever again win the way it did in 2009. It may be able to gain in the 2013 House of Councillors election, but it will not be much. The truth is, the DPJ is not the “2nd party” that they think they are in a Westminster-style system. Neither will the JRP be. When we all come back next year and Abe is forced to consider his promise to undertake reform of the House of Representatives, reducing the PR seats will be exactly the wrong thing to do, unless there is some kind of realignment into two blocs.

At the risk of sounding parochial, there is of course a solution, one that may only have a six month window open for consideration if the LDP is mildly successful at governing.

It produces good, stable cabinet-focused governance based on coalition governments, and pretty good representation across the spectrum while still incentivizing centrist policy-making. It is not that different from the current Japanese system in that it has both FPP elements and PR elements. And if a party is genuinely popular then it doesn’t prevent them from claiming a mandate for reform.

Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP).* It’s perfect for a natural four (or three) party system with a Westminster heritage. And, citizens are all enfranchised as both their party and their electorate vote are valued the same as anywhere else in the nation. Imagine that.

* With all of the necessary tweaks needed to make it work in Japan.

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9 thoughts on “Is it Time to Start Thinking about 2013?

  1. You answered your own question – it is numbing – thus my electronics investment is still intact ;-) To be honest though, it is somewhat vicarious – my own country’s politics are so boring and inconsequential. Maybe voyeurism is a better word :-)

  2. Pingback: The LDP and Issue Avoidance | σ1

  3. Plug: https://kiwipollguy.wordpress.com/2010/04/24/electoral-reform-introduction/ .

    I’m not sure about MMP for Japan, and I’m also not entirely sure what problems you think it would solve.

    It would seem that you want multi-party representation because Japan’s political spectrum is multi-dimensional, but if true then coalition governments would be spectacularly unstable. Coalition governments only really work in a canonical left/right political environment. Given that Japan has had seven PMs in seven years I’m not sure greater political instability would be a good tradeoff.

    I’m not sure what the answer is though. If I was in charge I would deal with campaign finance and the “inherited seats” first. I don’t think the lack of (age, gender, life experience) diversity is a root problem of Japanese democracy, but it is a symptom, and any electoral reform should aim to make improvements in this area. My gut says AV, with equal-population districts and two candidates per party per district (to make it easier for voters to vote out the incumbent). I’m sure it would have mountains of unforeseeable negative outcomes though.

    • David, thanks for popping by. I see your point regarding stability, but this election might well produce a result so absurdly unfair to the non-LDP parties that something like MPP should be considered. That said I am not particularly attached to this particular system itself – I just think there is a need to look at a different type of system if we assume that political realignment will look like a three or four pole system (with Komeito floating or whatever). As for your last comment – are you suggesting a reintroduction of the Multi-Member District system? Or some kind of primary system?

      • No, 300 single member districts with Alternative Vote (Preferential Vote, Instant Runoff Vote). You can only have 1 candidate per party under FPP, but with AV there is no limit because there is no spoiler effect. Flexible in regards to primaries, but parties should nominate two qualified candidates so that voters in every SMD get a choice, even if it is a stronghold for one of the parties. Would hopefully reduce the occasions where widely-disliked/incompetent candidates are re-elected based solely on party affiliation.

    • I’m not sure if it is used anywhere, although you could make an analogy to US states with open primaries.

      The point is that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system, it is all about tradeoffs. Proportional representation works in countries like NZ and Germany with stable (boring?) politics, but isn’t brilliant in Israel, for example, and I think it would get very messy in Japan.

      In Japan, with rapid PM turnover, voter apathy and minimal support for governments (of any party), I would emphasise the stability and responsiveness criteria my link above; proportionality is an extravagance.

      • I think that is probably true for a lower house, where the government is formed and the budget is passed. I think there is room for PR in an upper house. That is, if an upper house is actually needed (a whole other question). Originally in Japan the UH did serve a sort of purpose as a brake on the LH, but ultimately didn’t stand in its way – it essentially forced compromises in the passing of legislation. I think a 100-person PR type system in the UH could be a good balance to the system you have suggested. But it isn’t as if anyone is actually going to stop and think about such important but specialized questions ;-)

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