Getting Realistic About Political Reform

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

In the history of political reform in Japan there is a particular pattern that constantly reasserts itself. That is the conviction that if only a certain bold reform were adopted, Japanese politics would suddenly change for the better. The problem with this approach is that it is based on an idealized model of what "better" politics is that is not reflected in the real practices of any other country. As a result, even when reforms are made, the anticipated positive results do not materialize and everyone falls back to bemoaning how "backward" Japanese politics is. Then a few years later, political reformers come up with a new idea to right what is wrong with Japanese politics and in the process once again oversell the beneficial consequences of the reform they are promoting. In the early 1990s the reform movement exaggerated how much a change in the electoral system would bring Japan closer to an ideal model. And now reformers are doing the same thing with the call for parties and leaders to issue so-called manifestos.

Almost exactly ten years ago political reformers were arguing that eliminating the medium-size, single non-transferable vote electoral system and replacing it with a predominantly single member electoral system would revolutionize Japanese politics. Presto, a two party system would be born and elections would be fought over the alternative policy proposals made by the parties rather than being influenced by vested interests and by the personalities and support organizations of the candidates. Those who opposed abolishing the medium size district system and raised doubts about the new system were dismissed as "defenders of the past" and widely criticized. The mass media jumped on this reform bandwagon, and by 1993 it became impossible to turn the tide racing toward electoral system reform.

However, ten years after the introduction of the single member district, proportional representation mixed system, Japanese politics has yet to evolve in the direction the political reformers promised. Politician personal support organizations are still very strong and voters are still interested in what their Diet representatives will do for them and their hometown. The large number of so-called second generation politicians is testimony to how much personal connections continue to play an important role in determining voting behavior. The new system was supposed to produce two big parties that would embrace different principles and fight over basic policy issues. However, not only is it hard to see what the fundamental differences are between the LDP and the Democrats, but there are at least as deep divisions within the LDP as there are between it and the leading opposition party.

This year a new movement has emerged to bring Japanese politics into line with the cherished ideal model of party centered, policy oriented elections. This is the manifesto movement. This is the call for parties and people aspiring to party leadership to promise exactly what it is they plan to do if they come to power. To call this a party platform or election promise would not sound very exciting so the reformers use katakana for manifesto to convey a sense that something new, profound, and foreign is about to be introduced. If parties and leaders issue manifestos, then voters will vote on the basis of policy, and policies and parties rather than candidates and local interests will drive elections. Moreover, the new prime minister, armed with his manifesto, now will be able to march forward and the members of his party will be obliged to follow him. No more "opposition from within" in Japanese politics! Those who do not agree with the new prime minister's manifesto will have no choice but to leave the party. So finally, party reorganization will take place and a new energy will be injected into Japanese politics. In other words, what the proponents of the manifesto movement are promising is almost exactly the same thing the advocates of electoral reform promised a decade ago.

It is important or course that parties and politicians tell the voters what it is they want to accomplish if they get political power. And if issuing a manifesto will give the voters a clearer idea of what the parties' priorities are then it is a welcome development to be sure. But that is about as far as the significance of the manifesto goes. There is no country, the United States or others, where voters study the policy platforms of the contending parties and then decide who to vote for. Lots of factors go into the voting decision. Policy is one, but important as well as the attractiveness of the party leaders, the personality of the candidates, and a judgment as to how well the incumbent government has performed.

The prime minister or president's party does not necessarily always support the leader's policies. President Bush has to negotiate with Republicans in Congress to get his legislation passed. He cannot simply order that his party vote as he desires. But he can and almost certainly would fire anyone in his cabinet or on the White House staff who publicly opposed a policy he had committed to support. There is nothing unusual about people in the LDP opposing some of Prime Minister Koizumi's policies. What does set Japan apart is that people within what is supposed to be the prime minister's own strategic team, his cabinet ministers and the LDP's top officials, can criticize the prime minister's policies and get away with it.

Party manifestos are not going to solve Japan's basic political problems. They cannot do away with politics itself. The history of political reform in Japan is a history of exaggerated expectations leading to excessive disappointment. Japan would be better off if reformers let go of unrealistic idealized models of what democratic politics should be like and gave up the belief that like a magic pill a political reform could change Japan's political culture over night. Even if the manifesto movement registers some kind of a success, there still remains a great deal to be done in the way of concrete, specific, realistic and timely reforms to fix the problems in the Japanese political system.

>> Original text in Japanese

* The original article in Japanese appeared in the column 'Jidai wo yomu' of the August 3, 2003 issue of the Tokyo Shimbun. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and Tokyo Shimbun.

August 3, 2003 Tokyo Shimbun

August 28, 2003

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