RIETI Report December 2003

The House of Representatives Election
<RIETI Featured Fellows> Gerald CURTIS, IIO Jun, NAKABAYASHI Mieko

This month's featured article

The House of Representatives Election
<RIETI Featured Fellows> Gerald CURTIS, IIO Jun, NAKABAYASHI Mieko

Gerald CURTISFaculty Fellow, RIETI

IIO JunFaculty Fellow, RIETI


Greetings from RIETI

While many reporters think that the hordes of protestors which greeted President George W. Bush on his state visit to England this month was a positive show of disagreement with an increasingly unpopular cause and its chief leader, certain commentators have been noticing a particularly negative trend to such demonstrations. Remarking on the much-used slogan "Not in my name," an article in The Times (London) on November 17, 2003, ventured, "This is not a statement designed to involve others and does not offer an alternative. It is a statement of individual preference, an opt-out clause." Taking this line, it is disheartening to believe that all the energy put into the protests was merely for the purpose of a mass washing of hands. However, perhaps this response is itself motivated by a cynical public belief that little can be done to affect the course of politics and the minds of those that forge it. The House of Representatives election this month marked Japan's chance to change its political climate, and RIETI Report had the pleasure of asking Gerald Curtis, Iio Jun, and Nakabayashi Mieko for their views and reflections on the result. (DC)


Gerald CURTIS, Faculty Fellow
Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University

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IIO Jun, Faculty Fellow
Professor of Government, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

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Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University

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The House of Representatives Election

- Change in the course of politics? -


RIETI Report: What were your observations and analysis of the result of this month's general election?

Curtis: Throughout the campaign period ahead of the November 9 House of Representatives election, the Japanese media played it up as an election in which the voters could choose a government based on the different policy platforms the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presented in their party manifestos. I think the reality of the election is quite the opposite. This was a contest between two major parties whose differences in policy focused on secondary issues, such as whether to privatize the national highway corporation or make use of the highways free. That is not an issue of overriding national importance. On issues that are of importance, such as what policies to adopt to deal with North Korea, what the Japanese policy should be on Iraq, what specifically to do about pension and financial system reform and so on, the party manifestos muted or obfuscated their differences. Neither party presented an overarching vision of where Japan should be heading either in terms of domestic reform or foreign policy. In the past, the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) argued over Constitutional revision, unarmed neutrality or the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and other fundamental issues. What was notable about this election was the absence of that kind of debate and the emergence of a kind of vague consensus with differences being marginal or on secondary issues.

RIETI Report: Do you think this election has moved Japan toward a two-party system?

Curtis: Yes, the election has moved Japan in the direction of a two-party system, or more precisely a two-plus party system. The Komei Party, after all, emerged as the big winner in this election and effectively holds the casting vote that can make or break the government. So we are likely to see two major parties, the LDP and DPJ, and the Komei Party dominate politics for some years to come. In order to maximize its leverage, the Komei Party is probably going to try to reposition itself so that it can align with whichever party is likely to win the most seats.

Now whether a two party or two-plus party system is going to lead Japan to an alternation of the parties in power is another question entirely. DPJ President Kan Naoto had a grin that went from ear to ear when the election results came in because the DPJ increased its representation by 40 seats, and some of the newspapers headlined this dramatic DPJ "advance." But the truth is that the DPJ lost the election. Elections are not about advance or retreat; they are about winning or losing. The DPJ did not even reach its own goal of winning at least 200 seats. If the DPJ makes a similar advance in the next election, it will still leave the LDP in power. So that means an alternation of power is two or more elections, that is, maybe eight years away. Who knows what will happen in the meantime? The DPJ lost this election and its leaders should be asking themselves why they were unable to inspire more voters to come out and vote for them. The fact that this election recorded the second-lowest voting rate ever is an indicator of the DPJ's failure to excite the electorate.

RIETI Report: Has anything changed as a result of the latest election?

Curtis: In the long-term the results of the election moved Japan toward a two-party dominated system in which both parties are broad "catch-all" parties each trying to appeal to essentially the same voters. This means they are likely to sound more and more like each other and that they will play up the attractiveness of their leaders and their populist appeal to get votes. There is also the danger that if some major crisis emerges for Japan, the entire party system will move in exactly the same direction. The "brake" that used to be applied by the left no longer exists. The election results also mean the probable consolidation of the DPJ as the major opposition party and potential ruling party. If the DPJ had lost seats, it almost certainly would have splintered and the LDP would have been the only coherent party in a fragmented system. So the increase in DPJ seats is a good thing for the evolution of Japanese party politics in that it has reinforced the possibility of the consolidation and strengthening of a major party other than the LDP. In the short-term I do not expect any significant policy changes to result from this election. Koizumi has a secure majority and will continue to pursue his agenda. Japanese policy may change, especially with regard to Japanese security policy, but that will be a result of what is going on in the world and not what happened in the Nov. 9 election. One trend that is going to be strengthened by the election is talk of revision of Article Nine of the Constitution. The debate over Article Nine is becoming more and more complex with an increasing number of moderates and liberals shifting to support revision as a way to prevent a kind of creeping expansion of Japan's military role. So the debate over revision is likely to be dominated by an argument between revisionists who want to see an expansion of Japan's military power and revisionists who want to constrain that expansion. Revision itself is unlikely for the foreseeable future but the debate will grow more intense and that will serve to open up a major debate on what Japanese foreign policy should be.

RIETI Report: What kind of message did Japanese voters try to send across through the Nov. 9 election?

Curtis: Their message, if any, appears to be that they do not want any radical changes. People may feel uneasy and anxious about the future but there is no evident sense of crisis. The message also seems to be that voters like Koizumi as prime minister but do not like the LDP as much as they do its president. If they did, Koizumi's "coattails" would have been longer and the LDP would have won more seats. At the same time, the message is that the voters are not all that impressed with the DPJ either. The message to them is that they have to try harder if they want to win power.

- Change in the balance of political power? -


RIETI Report: What were your observations and analysis of the result of this month's general election?

Iio: Firstly, the election ended up in victory for the strong coalition of the LDP and the Komei Party, despite the strongest ever opposition by the DPJ. Secondly, the total number of districts occupied by both the LDP and the DPJ amounted to over 90%, demonstrating a big step toward the creation of a two-party political system.

More detailed analysis of this victory indicates another dimension to it - deepening of cooperation between the LDP and the Komei Party. The continuation of the LDP government was impossible without close cooperation with the Komei Party in the election campaign. We saw close and fundamental cooperation between the two parties, such as LDP candidates providing the Komei party with a list of their own support groups. Also, some LDP candidates went as far as asking voters to vote for the Komei Party in the proportional-representation constituencies. The fact that the Komei Party won in nine out of the ten single-seat districts in which they put up their own candidates illustrates that the proportion of LDP supporters who voted for Komei Party was not low. These observations show that the coalition of the LDP and the Komei Party has grown beyond simply sharing the government and the parties have become inextricably linked at an election level. As a result, it is expected that the Komei Party will have more influence within the government.

However, despite the victory of the ruling coalition, the vote-drawing power of both the LDP and the DPJ was in competition for the first time. By our estimates, a high proportion of the LDP candidates who won in single-seat districts would have been defeated without votes from supporters of the Komei Party. In the proportional-representation constituencies, in spite of the LDP's resurgence, it was the DPJ which gained the dominant position and the party's vigorous offensive was remarkable, partly due to the effect of its merger with the former Liberal Party. Thus it can be said that the LDP faces serious challenges ahead in light of this shift in politics, considering the fact that the LDP could not secure a majority of seats in spite of favorable conditions such as economic recovery and high approval rating of the Koizumi Cabinet.

RIETI Report: Could you elaborate on the question of the move toward a two-party system?

Iio: Let me point out three things. The first is the downfall of small to midsize parties. To say nothing of the New Conservative Party, which was dissolved following its devastating defeat in the election, both the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party were severely damaged. One factor contributing to the failure in performance of these parties is the taking root of the single-seat constituency system. Moreover, it is natural that the support base for small to midsize parties is being undermined, considering the fact that the number of votes in proportional-representation constituencies also dropped. Public consensus on the significance of the election as an opportunity to choose the government has been created. Thus, it made it difficult for parties which had an ambiguous platform and were fighting only for their own survival to attract votes.

The second is the taking root of the single-seat constituency system and expansion of the DPJ. The merging of the DPJ and the Liberal Party is a natural consequence of the election game rules that accompany a single-seat constituency system. This has considerably altered the previous balance of the LDP as the predominant ruling party challenged only by a fragmented opposition, and the DPJ has emerged as a strong base for criticizing the government. That said, although the gap between the LDP and the DPJ fell by 40 seats, it still remains large at 70. How the DPJ can be better prepared to win the next general election is a serious question. They will be challenged by momentous tasks: presentation of attractive and clear policy options; development of local organizations through daily political activities; formulation of an image strategy to appeal urgently to people on the need for a change of government.

The third point is the linkage between election result and choice of policy framework that was asserted by the Manifesto campaign. The natural premise that choice of policy, government, candidates and political parties should be linked has eventually been accepted in Japan's election campaign. Although it still displays immaturity, one cannot neglect the significance behind the fact that the ruling and opposition parties both fought the election campaign based on the notion that choice of policy determines choice of government.

- Change in the reform agenda? -


RIETI Report: The ruling coalition secured a majority and will remain in power. In realizing their campaign promises, what do you think will be the greatest challenge?

Nakabayashi: Fiscal problems are at the top of the agenda. Key issues - such as pension reform, postal savings and insurance services, public works projects and the so-called "trinity" reform (the simultaneous tax and fiscal reform of the national and local governments) - all stem from the fiscal problems. Japan, in proceeding with its fiscal reform, has lots to learn from the U.S. experience. It is often pointed out that the organizational system and institutions in place under the U.S. presidential system would not fit Japan, which follows a parliamentary cabinet system. Despite such institutional differences, however, there are certain important concepts that are common to the U.S. and Japan. Among others, it is important to establish a check and balance system. In the U.S., the separation of the three powers - administration, legislation and judicature - is firmly established even though the governing party changes from time to time. Therefore, the check and balance system functions relatively well. The same is true in Britain, even though it has a parliamentary cabinet system similar to that of Japan.

RIETI Report: How can we establish a check and balance system in Japan?

Nakabayashi: First of all, the overall function of the Diet must be reinforced. As to the budget formulation process, I think the Diet should decide on budgetary policy in general terms and set an overall framework for revenues and expenditures before legislators and government officials get tangled up in a tug-of-war over details. This would increase the responsibility and duties of individual lawmakers. Once this happens, it would become necessary to set up a budget office within the Diet staffed by those with specialized knowledge and policy expertise. Such an office does not necessarily have to take the form of a bureau affiliated with the Diet and many variations are possible. For instance, part of the Cabinet Office can be split into an independent administrative agency and its staff members can compete with their counterparts on the administrative government over the credibility of figures they present. Or it is possible to turn the existing research divisions of the two chambers of the Diet into a team of specialists on fiscal affairs.

Secondly, it is important to put a governance mechanism centering on the prime minister firmly in place within the administrative government. For this, Japan can take hints from the role of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Such a government mechanism can be counted on to identify and eliminate the fiscal maladies of Japan's compartmentalized administrative structure and causes for the lack of fiscal discipline.

Thirdly, the role of opposition parties should be strengthened. Japanese opposition parties, as they stand today, neither have enough information nor fiscal expertise and technique. They even lack opportunities for on-the-job training. As we can see from the result of the latest general elections, Japanese people no longer vote for opposition parties simply because there is a mood for changing the government. On this point the mass media and the DPJ were not very insightful. If the DPJ truly intends to take over the government, it needs to put forward concrete proposals based on the premise that their policy proposals will be subjected to a check and balance system. I do hope that DPJ members, as responsible politicians, work out policies by facing squarely up to the presence of massive fiscal deficits.

Japan still retains enough strength to carry out structural reform. But if it fails to take bold steps in the next several years, Japan may not have another chance. In this sense, I hope that the new government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro will tackle the fiscal problems with firm determination.

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