Time for a “death pool” on the DPJ?

If you come here for the foreign policy content I have a post on the ‘Three Principles of Arms Exports’ over at Japan Security Watch. They have, for those that are interested, changed. Here is a summary of the statement from the Chief Cabinet Secretary. I will be writing a little more on the changes later in the week.

Anyway domestically, it will by now be obvious that there is a little, perhaps unexpected, tension in and around Nagata-cho heading into the new year. I share with Michael Cucek a large degree of exasperation around what it is exactly the Noda Cabinet is trying to achieve. Noda has completely lost control over the narrative about what his prime ministership stands for. Cucek also provides some pretty good reasons here as to why the overall political situation has very quickly come to a head at a time of year when everybody should be taking a step back and reflecting on the events of the year. Jun Okumura as always provides some solid and sensible reasons for commentators to not get ahead of themselves in speculating on whether Japanese politics is about to undergo the now seemingly mythical political realignment (政界再編) that many have been predicting for a while. Like ‘regime change’ (政権交代) this almost seems to have become a meaningless phase despite the perhaps misplaced hope placed in it.

Nevertheless I will ignore Jun’s caution somewhat as I feel there is something a little different this time around. The party is much closer to splitting now than any of the other times when, according to the Japanese media and many foreign commentators, Ozawa apparently was threatening to tear the party apart, but suspiciously never really got close.

The reason why I say unexpected is that given how clumsily recent events have been handled it could be argued that this latest round of tension has surprised a number of stakeholders, including the Noda and his cabinet. Tension was expected over the TPP given what was (as I have argued, falsely) believed to be at stake. However it seemed that the one thing the Noda Cabinet was supposed to do was to promote party unity by giving a little bit to everyone, something the Hatoyama and Kan Cabinets did not attempt. A little bit to the Ozawa camp, to the differing camps within the “mainstream” group of Sengoku, Noda and Maehara, and then to some of the other factions-that-aren’t-really factions. Noda’s seeming comprehensive election victory seemed to suggest to Japanese commentators and media analysts at least that the issue of whether the consumption tax should be raised had been settled within the DPJ. Ozawa would hopefully be quiet.

And for the most part Ozawa has. He has even gone as far as to publicly state that now is not the time for DPJ newbies to jump ship. So that can’t be it. With Ozawa not being the current cause of tension, and no elections for the foreseeable future, the mainstream media seems to have no possible way to understand what is happening. So it is going (jp) with the Ozawa factor anyway in grappling for explanations. And this is precisely why the Japanese media, with its focus on personal politics and policy symbolism over the politics of policy making (reinforced to be sure by the actions and statements of the senior leaderships of all parties, big and small), struggles at times like this. Ultimately if this was all about Ozawa a much bigger split would have happened a longer time ago – recent differences appear to be very much over policy than personality.

So over and above the obvious and persistent reasons for tension in Japanese politics, I feel there there is an under-discussed aspect of the DPJ that need to be understood to truly make sense of the current situation.

That the DPJ is a party with no broadly uniting policy or ideology is already well-understood, and now that its reason for existence has vanished (removing the LDP), it is no surprise that it is violently thrashing around for coherence. From this point of view the fact that the party is split between old school socialists, social progressives, foreign policy hardliners, and experts in the cynical politics of patronage led by the likes of Ozawa, suggests that we can understand policy outcomes by reference to the machinations of various intra-party factions. And I in point this out I am not suggesting I don’t do it, to be sure.

The power of the factions however in the DPJ is only relevant when it comes to intra-party elections however. A problem this surely is, to be sure, due to the fact that the political situation has necessitated the need for so many of these tortuous exercises, but not necessarily the overall explanation for all outcomes related to the DPJ’s time in government.

The DPJ’s factions clearly play a role in these elections and in doling out the baubles of office by structuring election and candidate choices, and providing a ready made rhetorical frame for the public to understand the outcomes – and thus ultimately forces those outside of the various factions to go along with the prevailing politics of compromise in the short-term.

However, it does not necessarily apply to policy making, which is perhaps the major difference of the factions between the DPJ and the LDP, where in the LDP era policy conflict would be managed in order to mutually prolong the power of all of the respective power nexus. The TPP debate I feel showed this quite well – there was little factional coherence in terms of who came out for and against the TPP, or was lukewarm one way or another. Rather stakeholder interests, and election prospects and local considerations usually directed individual decisions. Furthermore, it is often forgotten however that there are well over 400 DPJ Diet members, and no where near enough factions to ‘contain’ all of them. As it was it took the LDP years, some would say decades to perfect its system of factional patronage and compromise.

In short, there is a large number of, often younger, DPJ Diet members who care not for factions, tolerate them to ensure they don’t unnecessarily make enemies, and whose personal political ambitions was initially forged upon the desire to actually be involved in reform of some kind, even if the exact contours of that reform were not ideologically and rigidly predetermined. They did not leave successful non-political careers where their talents were being put to productive use to waste time away in a do nothing parliament, and their support for Noda at the last party election was not simply a vote of confidence for party unity and/or simply for the consumption tax increase.

As has very much come to the fore in this latest round of tension, is that a consumption tax increase without either at least a symbolic cut in the number of Diet members (and therefore one assumes without reform of the electoral system of both the upper and lower houses), and preferably some kind of a start in administrative reform is a political disaster. Raising taxes without dealing with the oversized budget through actually cutting some of the shiwake programs, and/or dealing with other pressing drains on the governments fiscal health, like amakudari, would be simply unacceptable for these members if they had to go into a general election sometime soon under the DPJ banner. In this sense their thoughts would seem to be precisely in line with the publics’ general line of thought. Many politicians throughout the political spectrum still struggle to realize that the public’s lukewarm support in general for the consumption tax increase is intimately connected to some genuine political sacrifice being offered up, and then appear genuinely surprised when the public then comes out strongly against specific tax rise policies.

And thus many of the aforementioned DPJ members understood that Noda would push for the raising of the consumption tax and voted for him as the superior option over Kaieda Banri – if he would also take seriously the needed administrative reform, that incidentally Maehara Seiji discussed and recommended the party focus on in during the Noda era in his effective DPJ leadership  concession speech (well it was his appeal for votes but it more or less sounded like a concession speech).

Many of these aforementioned members have actually been deliberately been biding their time, knowing the current political situation is hopeless and not going to enhance their political ambitions or their policy agendas. Bold statements of symbolic value or on specific policies have not been in their self-interest, and ultimately in the interest of their policy aspirations. Many seemed resigned to venting their frustrations in private until the appropriate time.

However it seems that the restarting of the Yamba dam project, that was part a large symbolic part of the manifesto and seemingly a simple decision to make, and the pressure put on them to commit to a tax increase by the party leadership without making the necessary sacrifices, has really pushed the conflict to the core of the party.

There was already internal angst within the DPJ over the shiwake administrative review process. It yielded little by way of actual cuts to actual programs and more frustratingly, those programs that had been cut in this process arose in different ministries under different names. This was not lost within the party. A large number of DPJ members have become increasingly vocal at DPJ policy committees and combative towards what they see to be unresponsive bureaucratic advisers and party leadership, who appear to be ignoring their policy preferences and coming back to the committees with the same proposals with only cosmetic changes. It seems a lot of the rank and file of the DPJ which exist between the factional power nodes, have very little patience left.  It now appears obvious to them that Noda is not going to deliver.1

These members have been called “manifesto fundamentalists” by some, for example Watanabe Yoshimi, if they are not calling them Ozawa’s children. This view perpetuates the idea that Noda’s, or any PM’s deviation from the manifesto is the cause of intra-party tension. But this is not entirely accurate.  These members are realistic enough to understand that in a situation of political complexity stubborn devotion to a less than strategically coherent manifesto from a policy point of view was never going to be a winning strategy – and that the public would probably forgive some deviations if some other aspects of the manifesto, particularly the administrative ones, were executed.  But the Yamba Dam decision and the sacrifice-less tax increase proposal seems to have snuffed out any chance that these members, if they were to campaign as rank and file members of the DPJ at any future election,  would be able to appeal to the public’s sense of reasonableness. Now some will be asking, “what do we have left?”

So how is this different from previous intra-party eruptions? Aside from all fruitful avenues for burnishing one’s political and policy credentials being exhausted, I believe this time it is  unlike for example earlier this year when a group of strongly Ozawa affiliated DPJ members threatened to leave the party (sort of) around the time of the no-confidence vote against Kan. This eruption was easily understood – as the most loyal Ozawa-ites they were leverage for Ozawa in his battle with Kan at the time, and since all of them were elected on the PR system, and not particularly electorally attractive, (despite being described as “young politicians” when they were anything but) they had very little left to lose given that as Ozawa acolytes and PR Diet members they were doomed the moment Kan lost the Upper House election in 2010.

This time however the ones that are the cause of trouble for the Noda Cabinet were not solely elected through proportional representation. Saito Yasunori and Uchiyama Akira are leading this charge and are both representatives of their own constituencies. As I described of the pseudo-revolt earlier this year:

While they have at times, amusingly, been described as “young” by the Japanese press (若手 – only 3 of the 16 are under 45 ) they all are likely to suffer the most from an upcoming election under the DPJ banner, having not had even a local constituency to represent while trying to raise their personal profile in the last 2 years. A lot of the first-time candidates who were elected to local constituencies in 2009, under Ozawa’s direction took straight to using their new found status to raise their profile and have worked assiduously at a local level to consolidate their position, hardly touching 0n policy at all. These members in particular might find it most advantageous to distance themselves from the party at a later date – something they could well credibly do considering their lack of DPJ “institutionalization.”

For me, the movements of the likes of Ishizeki Takashi will be very instructive. Ishizeki recently came out in effective support of his Gunma counterpart (Nakajima Masaki), who perhaps initiated the recent round of defections (now reaching 9 members as I type – jp). Ishizeki said that he felt very much the same way about the party’s decision and wanting to break away. Ishizeki is young at 39 but has considerable political experience. A former government bureaucrat who graduated from Waseda and has spent time at the University of London,  he is very ambitious while at the same time has a strong belief in the need for reform in Japan in various forms. He is a ‘graduate’ of ‘Ozawa Juku’ and a part of the ‘Ozawa Group’ but has his own interests to look after as he was not elected on the PR block and represents Gunma constituency no.2. I would suggest that he, among many others dispersed throughout the party’s weak factional system,  is an appropriate weather vane of the mood of those I have described above within the DPJ. That he has echoed his displeasure but stayed within the party is suggestive. Noda et al will have to tread very carefully, which is exactly what he has done by putting off (ja) a decision on a specific percentage for the consumption tax increase, and a specific timetable for its implementation. But it may be close to all over for the party notwithstanding a miracle. It seems the issue is now really about the timing.

The rise of Osaka Mayor/self-appointed destroyer of vested interests in government (jp) Hashimoto Toru comes at a very interesting time for the DPJ members I have discussed in this post. Despite Kamei, Ozawa and other political opportunists’ nakedly transparent attempt to court Hashimoto, Hashimoto has kept his distance.2 And while I have all but given up on Watanabe Yoshimi and co. to contribute anything of value to the political process other than soundbites, there may be some chance for future cooperation. After all, there is almost no issue left for the government to address, even badly. That is, except for the growing unconstitutional affront to democracy that is the inter-regional vote disparity (一票の格差) that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported (ja) had grown in overall numerical terms in both houses of parliament, and crucially included a big jump in the number of electoral districts in the House of Representatives that passed the constitutionally acceptable 2 to 1 ratio. Ultimately I believe it is unlikely that too many DPJ malcontents will want to leave the party before this little issue is resolved – as long as it is unresolved they likely won’t have to contest an election and not knowing the outcome of this reform won’t help the formulation of future electoral strategy – nor would diminishing one’s influence over the singular issue that is left that would affect one’s chances of re-election.

1 Their existence also explains why Kamei Shizuka’s sought after reform to Post Office Privatization has not proceeded, even though all of the main factions aside from perhaps Maehara’s would gladly play political football with this issue.

2 Interestingly last Sunday Hashimoto and Maehara were on television together and were at great pains to not agree too warmly with each other – Hashimoto not wanting to be too close to anyone in the current government, and Maehara not wanting to be too closely associated with the maverick least he have his position of responsibility as DPJ policy chief undermined, which had already been called into question by his public explosion on the Yamba Dam decision.

Ozawa’s “soft” support base

It now appears that NHK has retracted their statement that Mabuchi and co. went for Noda’s group and in fact Mabuchi himself voted for Kaieda while seemingly the rest of his supporters voted as they wished. It also appears that Kano, Maehara and Noda had struck a rough agreement that the 3rd and 4th place getters would support the 2nd place getter in a strategic arrangement made before the first round of voting. Apparently Kano and his group, and a few of the younger cohort in the DPJ eventually baulked at the pressure applied to them by Ozawa, were concerned at the inelegance of Ozawa’s manoeuvring, and decided to throw in their lot with the mainstream group. According to this (jp) Nikkei article, Kano, after finishing fourth and being eliminated in the first round, took off his suit jacket to indicate to the 30 or so members most loyal to him that he was going to go with Noda and that they should follow his lead. Along with a few Mabuchi followers defecting to Noda this would bring Noda up to the 215 votes or so that he received, if some of Maehara’s votes defected to Kaieda out of concern for Noda’s tax rise friendly platform. It is still possible that Ozawa threw a few votes Noda’s way in round one for insurance but there was probably already a strong sense that, in addition to their not getting anywhere near 199 in round one, they were also likely to lose in the run-off as well. The scenario identified two posts before of Ozawa’s support base softening seems to be the most appropriate interpretation of yesterday’s events.

If the Nikkei’s summary of yesterday’s events (table -jp) is roughly accurate then this is bad news for Ozawa’s strength within the party. First of all, Okada has claimed that events proceeded as exactly as he (and Sengoku) expected. This suggests they have a good understanding of internal party relationships, something which Ozawa is increasingly losing. Furthermore, if we subtract the roughly 40 or so that we know are loyal to Hatoyama from Kaieda’ first round vote, then we can conclude at the very most we have 100 members inside the Ozawa “clique.” A far cry from the much larger 150 plus commentators were ominously talking about soon after the 2009 election. The strength of loyalty of even this 100 is probably suspect and as argued without a strong hold on the Secretary-general job Ozawa’s ability to command loyalty is going to decrease. In addition the Japanese media is already talking about “3 consecutive defeats” for Ozawa, with some glee to be sure, and those loyal to him are likely to going to see the writing on this particular wall. The way Ozawa played with even some of his most loyal supporters in the run up to the election is also going to leave a particularly bad taste in many mouths when the post-mortems are conducted today.

Kano for his sins, along with Koshiishi Azuma, is also featuring in talk regarding the important DPJ Secretary-general role. This might not only be some kaeshi for helping out Noda but both are seen to be quite middle of the road members within the DPJ. As opposed to Okada, Sengoku, Maehara or Edano, the selection of either of Koshiishi or Kano would be a signal to other DPJ members that appeals to “party unity” are not the empty slogans that they were perceived to be under Kan. Already some who supported Kaieda have approved of the possible selection of these candidates, and even Ozawa himself has been quoted as saying that he would support Noda if his appeals to party unity do indeed turn out to be more than empty words. Of course we will believe that when we see it but yesterday’s events seems to confirm that Ozawa may have little choice in the matter if Noda takes a pragmatic approach to selecting party personnel and focuses on manageable policy outcomes.

In this respect Noda will still have to act decisively in the short-term to ensure party divisions do not break open into a full internal civil war. However the election of Noda over either Maehara or Kaieda may help to avert an immediate breakdown of the DPJ, although Noda’s popularity, and thus to a substantial degree, ability, to navigate the domestic political situation will be the more important long-term challenge.

The Japanese PM run-off and the weekend’s media through a Rumsfeldian lens

There is a high likelihood that today’s DPJ presidential election will proceed to a run-off (決選投票) between the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes from the first round of voting. The meeting at the Hotel Otani to decide the next Japanese prime minister will start at roughly 11am Japan time, with 50 minutes put aside for speeches from the candidates, and voting to start soon after the speeches at around 12.20. By approximately 1.10 we should know if anyone has achieved the unlikely goal of 199 votes (50% plus 1 with the upper and lower house speakers sitting out) majority over all of the other candidates. If as expected this is not reached the top two vote-getters will face-off in the second round, meaning roughly 2pm might be a good time to tune in for the result if one has access to television.

Media reports throughout the weekend suggest that the run-off will be contested between the top vote-getter, predicted to be Kaieda Banri who has received both Hatoyama and Ozawa’s support (the “anti-mainstream” group or 非主流派), and either Finance Minister Noda or former Foreign Minister Maehara. The media is then predicting that the “mainstream” faction (主流派) will then pursue the not unexpected strategy of combining their votes for the second round to give whichever of their candidates who finishes in second place a chance to win the run-off.

One interesting development according to the media’s reporting this weekend is that rather than Maehara being the second-place favourite, Noda might well be pulling ahead.

The Asahi was not alone in reporting that Noda might have enough backing to make it into the second round. According to their investigation (jp) while Kaieda has the backing of at least 130 eligible voters, Noda might have as many as 80 voters backing him, with Maehara just behind at around 60-70. Minister of Agriculture Kano is predicted to pick up 30-40 with Mabuchi perhaps lucky to get much more than the support of the 20 DPJ members who offered up their signatures to allow Mabuchi to enter the race in the first place. The Mainichi found similar results in its investigation here (jp).

Even taking the above at mathematical face value suggests that the outcome is anything but obvious. However there are other reasons for hesitancy is making bold predictions (one way or another) about today’s outcomes. Below I describe some of the known unknowns.

Does Ozawa have a “Noda” strategy?

This is the idea that in a run-off between an Ozawa candidate and Maehara Seiji, Ozawa suspects that his candidate would lose to Maehara. When faced with the stark choice of two candidates, DPJ members may be tempted to think about how a Maehara administration might improve the party’s long-term prospects more than a Kaieda administration, even if they do not particularly favour Maehara as a person. However, in a Noda-Kaieda run-off the lack of public popularity of both candidates takes this factor out of the equation.

If Ozawa is truly as good at counting the votes as some argue, then he may therefore be tempted to throw some support behind Noda in the first round, perhaps by getting 30 or 40 of his group to vote for Noda and possibly eliminating Maehara. This would in theory leave enough votes for Kaieda to still take first place, but by a much smaller margin. For this strategy to work two assumptions are important. One is that Ozawa does have control over his group, and the second is that the pre-poll vote counting that media agencies such as the Asahi above have conducted do not already include some “Ozawa” supporters in Noda’s tally.

Ozawa and the magical “130”

Related to the above, does Ozawa really have the undivided loyalty of 130 DPJ Diet members? This has been a subject of debate for some time and there are good reasons to doubt it. First of all, various insiders have put the number at something more like 70 rather than 130. Since the 2009 election and the decrease in DPJ popularity, 1st term Diet members have slowly but surely gained independence from Ozawa’s control whether by initiative or accident. Indeed as discussed previously here there are a fair number of first term Diet members in both the DPJ and the LDP who have come together to despair at the senior leaderships in both of their respective parties. Many supposedly loyal to Ozawa might not be distancing themselves from Ozawa in terms of outright attacking their “master” – after all he can still dispense favours, advice and money which any self-interested but unknown Diet member may desire to access. We cannot however assume that their votes are a given, especially because these are also the most vulnerable members if an election had to be called due to another unpopular PM being unable to push the legislative process along. Secondly, there is indeed evidence of the tentative and “soft”  nature of Ozawa’s support base in recent DPJ elections. In the 2010 “full” DPJ presidential vote it was widely predicted that Ozawa would beat Kan in the Diet member vote section, while Kan would eventually triumph due to the support of local office holders and paid-up DPJ members. Kan did triumph but he also received a majority of Diet members votes also, who were wary of going too much against public opinion. Secondly the no-confidence vote in June of this year also shows that the Ozawa “coalition” is very unstable – it took only a vague promise from Kan to Hatoyama for a large number of the Diet members to lose their nerve and reverse their position in favour of a vote of confidence for the Kan administration. If another group in the party was to come out in the lead up today, publicly or otherwise, in favour of perhaps Maehara, or strike a deal with the mainstream candidates, then we could well see another strong reversal.

It may even be possible  that some suggested to the media they would vote in favour of Kaieda in the preliminary stages but were waiting to gauge what the overall mood in the party was- if there any doubts about Ozawa’s numbers felt within the party, or a faction is convinced to declare their support in a last minute deal with either Noda or Maehara,  then anything may happen.

What about the “middle of the road” factions?

Adding to the potential for instability, which would probably hurt Kaieda more than Noda or Maehara, are the voting declarations made by 4 of the groups unaffiliated to any of the candidates. Those members belonging to the groups comprised of former DSP (en) members (approximately 30 members), and former SDP members (20 members), have declared or indicated that their members would vote independently. Likewise with the Tarutoko Shinji and former PM Hata groups, which both come to approximately 20 members each.  Thus we already we have 90 undecided voters. The Mabuchi and Kano groups will then become a big factor in any run-off, where a last minute deal with one or both may be able to swing the votes to one candidate or the other.

Is Agriculture Minister Kano in or out of the race?

Conventional logic suggests that he hasn’t got a chance. However a number of voices, including the Yomiuri suggests that Kano may be more viable than many suspect (jp).  In fact the Yomiuri article suggests that Kaieda might be vulnerable to losing the run-off irrespective of whether Kano, Maehara, or Noda wins second place and is now looking quite desperately at trying to win in the first round, as difficult as that maybe.

Kano is generally seen to be more favourable towards the “anti-mainstream” than the Noda and Maehara’s group. If Maehara and or Noda wins then Kano’s group would likely side with Kaieda or remain neutral (ie vote independently) rather than join the “mainstream” candidate. This would mean that the unaffiliated and Mabuchi voters would decide the outcome of the run-off which would likely advantage a Maehara candidature  in particular as these kinds of voters are more likely to consider public opinion than those loyal to one candidate or another. However, in a variation of Ozawa’s “Noda” strategy, if Kano makes it to the second round there is also fear within the Ozawa camp that the mainstream faction will side with Kano as the lesser of two evils. In this case Kano might be a dark horse – with the support of the mainstream faction he would be close to the 199 number, requiring only Mabuchi’s groups’ support or the halving of the unaffiliated votes to make it past 199. In this scenario even a deal between the Ozawa group and Mabuchi (by no means a certain thing in itself)  might not be sufficient. This lack of confidence within the Ozawa group shows just how strong Ozawa antipathy is, which for Maehara and Noda is not a burden they have to bear. Might the many known unknowns combined with this antipathy and/or knowledge of this antipathy lead to a last minute abandoning of the “Ozawa” candidate in favour of Maehara and or Noda? Might it even happen in round one?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Ditto with any result, for that matter due to those unknown unknowns.

Kan’s Strategic Stubbornness II

Much has already been said about the remarkable turn-around in yesterday’s events where, within the space of a few hours, the DPJ went from death’s door to the LDP and the opposition being the ones  in for some tough times in terms of party unity. It seems likely that the LDP senior party leadership will be roundly criticized, with Tanigaki, Oshima, and Ishihara Nobuteru likely to be in the firing line.

Not only was the LDP embarrassed by the outcome of yesterday’s events,  but it could well be one of the final few nails in the coffin of the old guard of the LDP. For the first time since the 2009 election it was starting to look as if the LDP was starting to pick up votes due to DPJ blunders. Now having completely misread public sentiment (which while disapproving of Kan was against such a cynical political exercise at this point in time), and having Tanigaki on record not ruling out a grand coalition with Ozawa (who is still considerably more unpopular than Kan), then it may well have snuffed out continuing such a comeback. While the opposition will accuse the DPJ of playing politics with peoples’ lives and engaging in nothing more cynical political and party shenanigans (and they may well be right), it is they who come out looking like they have politicized the recovery for self-interested gain.

Not only have they lost the main weapon for removing Kan, (a no-confidence motion can only be submitted once during a parliamentary session according to parliamentary custom) they are now in a position where they will likely be compelled to cooperate with some of the government’s policy programme. Now that Kan has indicated that he will likely step down around December and/or January, should the recovery programme proceed, the opposition now have little choice but to work with the DPJ if they want to see the back of Kan. A nice little outcome for such a curious promise – a promise, to be sure, so vague it could only convince the likes of Hatoyama Yukio. The 22 or so LDP members (which is one-fifth of the current LDP’s strength) who participated in the “minji-ren” meeting last week, will have their position within the party strengthened – or ignored at the party’s peril.  This group wished to see more focus being placed on cross-party approaches to the recovery effort, as well as accelerate generational change in politics (and thus escape the personal politicking they saw being pursued by the LDP senior leadership, the Kan group, and the Ozawa group)- something that Kan himself alluded to when indicating he would step down at some point. Kono Taro was one of the main LDP sponsors of this grouping.

At least, this is what one would think the logical outcome of all of this would be. Already there is talk about the LDP submitting a censure motion in the Upper House, although as this Yomiuri article points out, some might well be tiring of this kind of approach. The Reconstruction Design Council will present its findings this month and Kan is well positioned to take ownership of them. Of course what happens from here is anyone’s guess. But whether by design or not, it seems that Kan’s strategic stubbornness has paid off for him. And this war of attrition seems to be applying ever more pressure to the back of the old establishment.

1 Ishihara not helping himself by equating Kan to Hitler in the lead-up speeches. Yes, they are just that simply out of touch with the public. Kan has certainly not been a star and has certainly been frustrating. But the opposition had been framing the no-confidence motion as the choice between Hitler and FDR…and no-one, including the public, was going to be fooled by this. 

Constitutional issues to be relooked at by the DPJ

I am making some connections between what are likely unconnected dynamics here, but there may be a future confluence of the strains of political and constitutional activity discussed below.

The first is that the DPJ is going to relook at the party’s policy on the constitution (jp). The party’s executive has convened the party’s investigative panel on the constitution – the first time it has done so in four years. While saying that the current policy on the constitution is still the party’s policy, given that many of the people involved with crafting the party’s constitutional policy in 2005 are no longer with the DPJ it is imperative that the party takes another look at its vision for Japan’s constitution. Crucially, former Foreign Minister Maehara has been made the panel’s chairman, which suggests that foreign policy may be the focus of the panel’s investigation.

That said, it should not be taken for granted that this will be the focus. There are certainly a range of other issues, mostly domestic ones, that should be considered by the panel. After all, as I argued in the previous post, the public is much more concerned with the relationship between the domestic political situation and the constitution than it is foreign policy at this point in time (and as it has arguably for quite a while). The previous DPJ constitutional proposal certainly did not only focus only on security affairs.1

Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru is first up with his criticism (jp) of the current political situation and the need for a constitutional solution. Hashimoto addressed a conference dedicated to the anniversary of the implementation of the Japanese constitution by saying that there was a need for the public to take back from the parliament the right to elect the country’s leader through a constitutional revision. Claiming that this is the most important political concern for the country at this point in time, he argued that the public should be able to directly choose the Prime Minister. This is not quite a vote for a presidential system – according to the article Hashimoto has said in previous interviews that the popular candidate for Prime Minister should be limited to members of parliament. He has reservations about politicians having a “free-hand” in the election of the country’s ultimate leader. On its own the policy is not likely to get much traction but if Hashimoto can somehow connect the logic (and the details of how it would work electorally and institutionally) it to his decentralization campaign, it might well gain more discussion space than it otherwise would.

Not unpredictably the The Reconstruction Design Council (en) will likely give a boost to Hashimoto’s decentralization crusade at the end of June. They are looking to publish the initial recommendations from the first four meetings and subsequent observations of the disaster area, and their discussions with important stakeholders. The guiding principles have already been published (jp). The first official report back will focus on the regeneration of regional economies and regional communities, which will obviously have some impact on the debate about decentralization in Japan. From mid-May four working groups will be convened under the Council and will work on putting flesh on the bones of proposals related to disaster prevention and community development, local industries (mainly regeneration of farming and fishing industries), medium-term energy policy, and finally employment and social security.

It will be interesting to see if any political actor down the track makes any coherent connections between these discussions, hopefully with due consideration being given to the pressing electoral issues raised by the Japanese Supreme Court in recent times.

1 In general terms the DPJ’s constitutional proposal pointed to the need for Japan to consider its foreign policy more coherently and the constitution should reflect this need- in other words the current process of “ad-hoc” foreign policy making, proceeding through the process of constitutional reinterpretation by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, was potentially hazardous. It argued that there was a need to better and clearly define the allowable extent of Japan’s use of force for defense, and in particular the use of force overseas. It promoted the concept of “limited” defense which would enable Japan to be more active overseas, and move from being a “peace-loving” country to a “peace-creating” country which would mean some allowances being made for the deployment of Japanese forces overseas. However ultimately the restrictions on the use of force would still be significantly stronger than those allowed in international law (and in a sense, argued for a weaker form of collective self-defense).

Constitutional change in post-3/11 Japan.

The Asahi Shimbun has released the 2011 version of an ongoing survey they have been conducting. Of course the recent natural disasters are probably weighing heavily on people’s minds when answering these questions, however the results are worthy of further commentary.

One set of questions is always of interest for analysts of Japan’s foreign and domestic policies- those on the constitution.

When asked if, in general terms, Japan should change its constitution, 54% of the those survey responded in the affirmative while 29 percent said it was not necessary to change the constitution. This has changed from 47% in favour versus 39% against in 2010.

However, among the 54% in favour of amending the constitution only 14% pointed to the need for Article 9 revision, and 9% believed that amendment should take place for the simple reason that Japan needed to symbolically ratify its “own” constitution. What is significant about this is that two of the old reference points for symbolic politics in Japan – ie the need for an indigenously ratified (non-American) constitution and the need for Japan to free itself from Article 9 in order to “regain its sovereignty,” do not appear to be particularly compelling reasons for constitutional adjustment in the 21st century. Academic and media claims that Japan is becoming more nationalistic and/or more “realistic” (in the strict IR theory sense) therefore need to be taken with a grain of salt. To be sure, there has always been a need to take these conceptualizations with a grain of salt and this is not a new dynamic as such.

What is compelling however it seems is the need for political reform – in particular the need for new rights and a new political system to be enshrined in the constitution. 74% of the affirmative respondents pointed towards this as being the reason for constitutional revision.

As for the 29% who indicated there was no pressing necessity for constitutional revision, 45% (13% of all respondents to the question on constitutional change) did point towards the need to protect Article 9.  35% of this group agreed that there were no pressing problems and that the constitution had become entrenched in political life (ie even if American ‘imposed,’ the Japanese have entrenched the spirit of the constitution in its society), with 15% saying that it served its purposes in guaranteeing freedom and the rights of the public.

This result also suggests that entrenched anti-militarism or pacifism, or the population wishing to keep “their head in the sand” on foreign policy, are not in themselves convincing explanations for Japan’s constitutional reticence.

In a straight yes or no on Article 9, only 30% pointed to the immediate need to adjust Article 9 while 59% think it is still better to maintain Article 9. This changed from 24% and 67% respectively. When interpreted in the context of the previous results, while it seems that an absolute commitment to the “Peace Constitution” above all else is no longer (if it ever was) the major factor in Japanese constitutional politics, it seems as if the public is still relatively unconvinced about alternative visions for Japanese security policy and its military posture. There is often a very black and white thinking in discussions on Article 9 in foreign media and academic world- a thinking that seems to subtly imply that Japanese either completely adhere to the principles of pacifism (and thus not touch Article 9 at all), or they must want to embrace either “realism” (ie a “normal” Japan) or “nationalistic militarism,” and thus want Article 9 completely removed. I think the reality is more that Article 9 is not just a buffer against militarism but also against foggy strategic and visionary thinking on Japan’s security. It is completely possible that if Article 9 was to be amended, it could be amended in a way that does not fit in with any of the mainstream expectations of analysts focused on the explanatory factors of  “pacifism,” “realism,” or “(conservative/militaristic) nationalism.” However, as nothing appetizing currently exists (and may never do perhaps),  for the time being slow and steady on security policy evolution is both, from the Japanese point of view, pragmatic and democratic.

Given the strong sense of the need for constitutional revision for the purposes of political reform, the results to other questions in the survey are probably not surprising.

Japanese are very concerned about the vote discrepancy between voters in different regions in Japan (一票の格差). 64% of respondents said they were either greatly concerned or concerned about the issue, while 34% said they were either somewhat unconcerned or not at all concerned with the issue. However, most admitted that for depopulated regions it was inevitable that some kind of discrepancy would endure – 51% said it was inevitable (and thus acceptable to some degree) while 35% said that all attempts should be made to rectify the discrepancy. When quizzed on how much an acceptable discrepancy was in the Japanese House of Representatives,  34% said about as close to 1:1 as possible was preferable, 40% said under 2:1 was acceptable, and 10% said that more than 2:1 was ok.

The survey also asked whether members of the Diet should represent all Japanese citizens or should be representing their electorate’s constituents. 42% responded with “all Japanese citizens” and 52% responded that there were representatives of their electoral district. This would be an interesting question to compare over time but it seems they did not ask this particular question last year.

Recently the Japanese Supreme Court handed down a ruling that said that a 2:1 voter discrepancy in the House of Representatives was unconstitutional and also provided commentary to the effect that mere adjustment by means of redistricting was insufficient and that the method of apportionment of seats to prefectures had to be changed. Namely, there was a need to abandon the practice of allocating 1 seat to every prefecture first and then assign the remaining 253 House of Representatives seats on the basis of population. This was seen to be the main structural driver of vote discrepancies given demographic changes in Japan.

A question was asked to whether this was a reasonable method of apportionment (without the context of the Supreme Court decision provided). 57% agreed with maintaining this method of apportionment while 22% were against it.

It seems that respondents probably were not provided with sufficient information to make a good judgement on this one however. Given that respondents believed that political reform of some kind was necessary – perhaps even constitutionally necessary – and specifically that the vote discrepancy was worthy of concern, then considering this is the most significant mathematical driver of inequality in the House of Representatives this seems like an odd response. Especially given the answer to the next question.

In response to the question as to whether voters would mind if the House of Councillors elections combined some prefectural districts into larger electoral districts for the purposes of lessening the vote discrepancy, then 49% of respondents said this would not be an issue for them, while 34% said they supported individual prefectural units maintaining their distinctiveness.

When considered in the context of the previous question as well, one explanation for the discrepancy could be that while respondents do not want local voices completely snuffed out of the process and guaranteed to some degree in the electoral math, they are somewhat more open to the idea of larger regional blocs representing their interests if this allows greater electoral (and thus in this case constitutional) equality overall.

The Japanese article is here.

Kan’s strategic stubborness

As the story says: “The ruling Democratic Party of Japan lost in seven of 10 mayoral elections Sunday in which its candidates effectively faced off with those of the Liberal Democratic Party in the second round of local-level polls.”

I guess this could be “the” news coming out of round two of the united local elections. It is pretty representative of most English and Japanese media reporting on Japanese politics – certainly little discussion of the implications for policy and what the public might be saying they want. But here (ja) is something that sneaked through:

統一地方選後半戦の88市長選(無投票当選の15市含む)は、政党からの推薦・支持を受けない無党派候補が55人当選し、全体の62.5%を占めた。前回(52.1%)から10.4ポイント増加し、地方選での政党離れの傾向が強まった。

55 out of the 88 mayoral elections were won by candidates who did not receive a recommendation or support from one of the established political parties. This comes to 62.5%, a 10.4% increase from previous elections, suggesting the further weakening of party identification at the local level.

This was already evident at the national level but the disease is spreading fast.

As an aside, PM Kan is certainly a glutton for punishment and is showing that one thing he does not lack is stubborness. But, stubborness without a plan does not seem to be particularly useful to anybody. Now that consideration of the TPP is likely going to have to be put off for the long-term, and even the few election promises the DPJ has acted upon are being scaled back due to the need to finance  Tohoku reconstruction, one could reasonably question for what purpose, other than stability while the nuclear incident is ongoing, Kan is sticking around given he is being attacked from the political left, right, and center with no hope of being able to push forward on a policy program.

Perhaps Kan is holding out for the the Reconstruction Design Council‘s recommendations. If they can get to Kan’s table in time, perhaps Kan thinks he can use the reconstruction plan as non-partisan “mandate” to go to the public. Afterall, the original DPJ mandate is dead, and the subsequent Kan “vision” is a political non-starter, and pretty much everything else that has been touched or will be put forward by a political party is going to inevitably smell… it was not just short-term DPJ political information mismanagement that was responsible for the nuclear incident, afterall.1

Therefore, is this a race against time inside his own party? Perhaps against  Hatoyama- Ozawa jumping ship into a “grand coalition”?

Once Kan has hold of  the recommendations then they can be presented – either the opposition agrees, Kan pushes forward  and perhaps there can be some respite for Kan. Perhaps he thinks he can build his way back into the heady heights of a 30% approval rating.  Or if the opposition (or his own party) disagrees with the/a reconstruction plan, Kan may be able to make the best of a bad situation by forcing the opposition, or a breakaway DPJ clique, to face the public in their disagreement on the plan, rather than allow them to focus on Kan’s leadership. Because right now, if Kan was to use the nuclear option of heading off an internal DPJ challenge or a no-confidence motion from the opposition by calling a snap election, he only has his own native cunning and reputation to rely on and, well, basically his stubbornness is all for nothing.

The key question is whether Kan is willing to make good on his previous threat to call a snap- election. He may well do many people a favour if he headed off a challenge from the politically de-legitimized Ozawa-Hatoyama combo by using this weapon – or alternatively if he uses it to snuff out an even more incoherent coalition between the LDP and DPJ remnants (than what the DPJ as a party represent).  But there is always the possibility that he will step aside meekly and let his head be the price for inter-party cooperation. But given his stubborness, and his famously unpredictable temper, perhaps he will not go the way of Hatoyama. And thus, everything that happens from now on is a matter of timing.

1 One of the sometimes humorous, sometimes galling, always just plain sad things reading about why Kan should step-down over the nuclear incident is the number of politicians who think just by removing Kan things would magically get better. Koike has said as much. Bunmei Ibuki labelled the Kan Cabinet itself the “great disaster,” and Ozawa has implied that he could get things under control. It may well be the case that Kan and co. erred in their information management, or PR,  in letting TEPCO run the show in the initial stages, or the million other things that Kan has supposed to have done – but in all seriousness it just shows how detached from reality so many of the old guard actually are.

A bolder approach to electoral reform?

Discussion of electoral reform was not something I expected to see just a few weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami, and in the midst of a nuclear incident. However the Japanese Supreme Court has handed down an interesting and challenging decision which will further complicate matters for opponents of electoral reform in Japan (jp).

The DPJ, having only, somewhat inexplicably, meekly pursued electoral reform up until this point has been effectively forced to change tack again. Now they are looking at the big prize – the House of Representatives.

Until now most of the focus was on reforming the upper house/House of Councillors – certainly the more unfair of the two institutions with a “vote disparity”「1票格差」of 5 to 1 in some places (ie how many votes it takes to send an MP to the HoC in one place versus another). A variety of complicated proposals were ventured, including one that would turn whole regional areas into multi-member electoral districts. In recent years there have been more and more court decisions stating that vote disparities had brought the electoral system into a “state of unconstitutionality.” No elections were overturned but one had to wonder how long this could be put up with without making a mockery of Japan’s political system and the operational significance of having a system built on a separation of powers.

Now there is a “legal” need to look at the House of Representatives. The manner in which it is  elected has also been ruled to not be entirely constitutional in the past, although not as often as the House of Councillors. Already there was a process in place for re-districting the House of Representatives based on the recent census. As required by law after every census a commission of inquiry is set up to look at ways that the vote disparity between the two most extreme districts can be brought back under 2:1. They then report back, this time it was due to be February 2012, to the Japanese Prime Minister on their recommendations for demarcating single-member electoral districts. This commission had already reported based on preliminary census results that to do this 4 prefectures would have to receive additional seats while 4 districts would have to lose one. A full-sitting of the Supreme Court however on the 23rd March recommended that the current 2.3:1 ratio should be rectified as soon as possible – but not by simple redistricting.

The DPJ has released a new proposal that would do two things in addressing the above decision – and it looks to be taking the courts seriously this time.

1) It would abandon the special method of apportioning seats [1人別枠方式] that was introduced in 1994, which takes the 300 single member districts and distributes one seat to every prefecture in Japan as the starting point. This leaves 253 seats remaining which are then allotted to each district on the basis of their population. In the most recent Japanese Supreme Court decision this particular method of apportioning seats came in for special criticism. Essentially, distributing all 300 single member district seats on the basis of population is the fairest outcome based on the Supreme Court’s ruling. Every prefecture would still have at least 1 seat – with Tottori being the only prefecture to have only a single seat. 10 prefectures would gain 21 seats while 21 prefectures would lose a single seat. No one loses more than 1, according to Jiji’s calculations (jp). Notable is that Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo and Kanagawa, gain 13 seats between them. Breakdown is at the end of the post.

2) The DPJ, in line with their manifesto would also seek to look at the proportional representation system in the House of Representatives and reduce the number of PR seats from 180 to 100. According to previous statements by party members, this is for the purposes of not just saving money but for the purposes of supporting more coherent policy divisions, or ideological choice, by enabling a two party system to take hold – or at least increase the chances of it doing so. Essentially it would reduce the strength of parties who rely exclusively on the PR system for their representation in the House of Representatives. PR seats would in this set up make up 25% of all seats in the House of Representatives, rather than the 37.5% that they do now.

The implications, and thus the likely discontents will be obvious here – regional voices will lose some of their strength in a House of Representatives elected in this way. Of course, some may say they will only be reduced to an equal voice and thus there is no basis for complaining; notwithstanding concerns about the ‘tyranny of the majority’ scholars of US political history will be familiar with.

Perhaps a better way to frame this however, as I am now probably at risk of belabouring, is in the synergy between the houses by way of differentiating the functions of the two houses more clearly. The House of Councillors, while likely to undergo some reform given the 5 to 1 ratio is bordering on scandalous, will still likely disproportionately advantage rural and regional interests to a degree where these interests could become a check on power, and thus on some expressions of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ If the vote disparity can be reduced to something along the lines of the 2,3:1 range then that may be acceptable if absolute equality is guaranteed in the House of Representatives. Which after all is probably where absolute equality should be observed given the additional, “last resort” powers that the HoR holds (ie 2/3rds majority override and the automatic passing of the budget in cases of conflict between the two houses). PR parties would still likely be well represented in a HoC that is elected through large multi-member districts. And they would not cease to function in the HoR either.

Of course this says nothing about whether this is likely to pass despite the Supreme Court’s criticism of the current system. They can probably count out support from the SDP, JCP, PNP etc. The LDP’s increasingly rural profile will also at this point in time make it cautious towards such a plan, even if in the long-term it advantages big parties. Komeito & Your Party as medium-sized third parties seem more open to the idea at this point in time. And of course there will be plenty of discontents in the DPJ itself.

There may have to be some concessions in terms of the delegation of certain functions and powers to regional municipalities to attract support for the plan- something strongly recommended to Kan by Igarashi Takayoshi, one of his cabinet advisers, in the wake of recent events. In fact, this sort of compromise would likely achieve the best of both worlds – central government would not be able to interfere so often with process-related policy making and delivery in the regions, that creates so much tension. On the other hand regional concerns and interests would not “interfere” as violently with the long-term strategic policymaking that central government and political administrations are ideally supposed to engage in, and that Japan needs more than ever in the wake of recent tragedies. Nevertheless, the Japanese Supreme Court has handed the DPJ a difficult one – full scale reform as suggested by the Supreme Court will require that the Tohoku region be further emaciated at the national level  given that depopulation was already in full swing in the area even prior to the triple disaster.

都道府県 現行定数  試算結果  増減
北海道    12    13  +1
青森県     4     3  -1
岩手県     4     3  -1
宮城県     6     5  -1
秋田県     3     2  -1
山形県     3     3   0
福島県     5     5   0
茨城県     7     7   0
栃木県     5     5   0
群馬県     5     5   0
埼玉県    15    17  +2
千葉県    13    15  +2
東京都    25    31  +6
神奈川県   18    21  +3
新潟県     6     6   0
富山県     3     3   0
石川県     3     3   0
福井県     3     2  -1
山梨県     3     2  -1
長野県     5     5   0
岐阜県     5     5   0
静岡県     8     9  +1
愛知県    15    17  +2
三重県     5     4  -1
滋賀県     4     3  -1
京都府     6     6   0
大阪府    19    21  +2
兵庫県    12    13  +1
奈良県     4     3  -1
和歌山県    3     2  -1
鳥取県     2     1  -1
島根県     2     2   0
岡山県     5     5   0
広島県     7     7   0
山口県     4     3  -1
徳島県     3     2  -1
香川県     3     2  -1
愛媛県     4     3  -1
高知県     3     2  -1
福岡県    11    12  +1
佐賀県     3     2  -1
長崎県     4     3  -1
熊本県     5     4  -1
大分県     3     3   0
宮崎県     3     3   0
鹿児島県    5     4  -1
沖縄県     4     3  -1

Making the Japanese House of Councillors’ elections 4 times more fair….

There has been one issue where the lack of political killer instinct of the DPJ (and to a lesser degree other parties such as Komeito and Your Party that won seats in the larger multi-member constituencies in the recent Upper House election) has been quite puzzling. On a number of occasions various Japanese courts have ruled that the 一票の格差 (ippyou no kakusa) – the relative difference between one constituency and another in terms of the number of votes it takes to elect one candidate to the House of Councillors and/or Representatives – in Japanese elections has been unconstitutional. While no change should be expected under the LDP government which had generally benefited from rural votes essentially being worth more than urban votes, it was curious that the DPJ at least did not set the ball rolling on such reform sometime earlier than now on this issue, perhaps by setting up a parliamentary commission to look at the issue. After all, it is unconstitutional for one and any changes likely benefit the DPJ for another.  It is worth considering that electoral changes in the other interlude between LDP regimes (1993-94) are often cited as being crucial for the DPJ becoming the major party after the 2009 elections, even if 15 years delayed.

Nevertheless, the government has finally got around to looking at the issue at least for the Upper House – perhaps a recent statement from the Tokyo High Court, in ruling on the ippyou no kakusa’s unconstitutionality, that tinkering with the system was not going to cut it anymore, was useful here. The Asahi reports (ja) that the DPJ is going to propose a plan to be considered next spring  that attempts to equalize the vote discrepancy throughout the country by ensuring no one area has an ippyou no kakusa of more than 1.2. They will do this by setting up 11 multi-member constituency blocks spanning the country(image here Japanese but pretty straightforward), with the intention that such as system be put in place by the 2013 election. There will be no requirement for each prefecture to be represented by at least one member of parliament at every election and proportional representation will be abolished. This will also be accompanied by a reduction of seats from 242 to 200.1

This is a similar plan to one that I discussed in an earlier post as put forward by Takenaka Harukata. Takenaka, in considering how to make the Upper House more democratic, also very sensibly focused on the “functions”of the respective houses in terms of how they fit within the policy making process (rather than being obsessed with the “numbers” of MPs as some Japanese politicians have been). Suggesting that the Upper House had become no more than a disruptive clone of the Lower House, he suggested that the Upper House should  provide for a more pluralistic politics, rather than being a site for the continuation of partisan conflicts. In terms of its relationship with the Lower House, the Upper House should be a more independent/deliberative, rather than political party-centred check on the Lower House. This increasing partisanship is, according to Takenaka, a reasonably recent development and has somewhat undermined the function and value of a separate Upper House.

The new proposal is not completely dissimilar to the thinking behind the US HoR and Senate, although the roles somewhat reversed in terms of how the Houses are elected. Idealistic as the above expectation may be, I think it serves as a pretty useful principle – institutional design is not the be all and end all of fostering a desired political/democratic culture, but it certainly is a major component. Such a change has great potential to provide different (and importantly, more democratic) incentives for political actors to embrace certain policies and engage in a different style of politics.

Needless to say, despite the greater constitutional appropriateness of such a system, it will not come about so easily and there may need to be some pragmatic compromises. Parties such as the Communist Party and the Socialist Party will may find it more difficult to even maintain their current low numbers, given that they have been more or less PR only parties for sometime. (edited: Actually on rethinking this these PR parties may do well, although it depends on how many seats are up for election in each bloc – the larger the bloc the better it seems for parties like the communists and socialists who sometimes only garner a few percent, which would be enough in the larger blocs. Parties with more support on the PR such as Komeito and YP might do quite well)

Komeito also generally benefits from the PR system, although is and also picks up a lot of urban support. Your Party also benefited from PR at the last Upper House election, although and Your Party in particular might want to take a bet on an expanded multi-member district system which gives more strength to urban voters. While the Communist and Socialist parties are unlikely to agree to the proposal no matter what, That said, the DPJ will have a hard time convincing some of its own members to get behind the plan – a fair number will effectively see their seats abolished and the specific local concerns of their constituents being given less consideration in Upper House election campaigns at least (Although if the latest Upper House election is anything to go by, from a purely self-serving point of view, these DPJ members may lose their seats anyhow).

Such a system may open up opportunities for new parties to form where older parties (including the bigger ones) might stumble in this new system- as suggested Your Party for example could be a beneficiary from such a proposal. The proposed system is not at all inherently contrary to the interests of small parties and could be quite profitable for up-and-coming small-medium size parties. Up until now Upper House elections, given the PR/local constituent split in seats, tended to be run on very broad but non-specific national issues, or on very specific local issues (although also often served as referenda on the ruling government). This might sound good in theory, but in reality it appears to me at least that it allows/incentivizes politicians to avoid the bigger pressing issues and focus on local issues. Local issues are of course important, but one could reasonably ask why have two parliamentary houses emphasizing such concerns. The proposal would seem to transform Upper House elections to being more about regional (as opposed to “local”) and national issues, which could allow for more compromise and a more deliberative, less partisan approach being taken in the Upper House.

One of the “negative” outcomes of such a system would be more minority/divided governments as a major party would struggle without quite substantial support to achieve a Upper House majority. Then again, given the state of Japanese politics right now (where a tired and out of ideas LDP cannot pick up support from voters deserting the DPJ), and the likelihood of there being no majority in either house if an election was held right now, this may not be such a downside. It would certainly compel parties to consider their long-term strategies to managing the legislative process – mainly because parties themselves would have less control over their members in such a system, similar to how Senators in the US have traditionally been seen to be less partisan and more independent of their parties (although, not necessarily more “reasonable,” to be sure).

Nevertheless, “because it is unconstitutional” should be a worthwhile response to the above concerns in a country seemingly committed to democracy and constitutional government. Certainly if the current incarnation of the LDP were to somehow climb back into power without any alterations to the way politicians are elected then it does not bode well for reform and evolution in the Japanese political system – however badly one perceives the DPJ to be managing the government, it is less than clear that any other party interested in reform of any kind would be all that successful in the current political environment. Certainly parties like Your Party, and any party focused on regional issues that might pop in the next year or two, who represent Japanese constituencies with some reasonable things to say, could well find themselves slowly withering away without any long-term institutional insurance through the electoral system.

1 I think there surely must be more detail to be worked out. According to the proposal, the Kinki bloc will have 32 members being elected, with 5 other blocs have 20 or more members. Upper House elections are three years apart so in these blocs 10 to 16 members will be elected each time. If they are treated as one large electoral bloc then assuming the most popular 2 or 3 candidates get a significant proportion of the vote, then other candidates might only have to get a few percent to get elected. This seems very low to me (even if a few percent of a lot of people is, well, a lot) – the 11 bloc system would make more sense I feel (in terms of the logic I outlined in this post) if the number of parliamentarians was reduced to 100 (politically impossible I am sure), or, the blocs were smaller. Or some combination of reduced membership and slightly smaller blocs.