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Japan: Adapting to a New Electoral System


In 1993 the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) split and lost control of the main chamber of the Japanese Diet in the general election that followed. One of the achievements of the new coalition that formed in its place was reform of the electoral system, which had been widely viewed as a source of corruption and the basis of the LDP’s long-standing dominance.

Under the old electoral system (SNTV), the 511 members of the House of Representatives (the lower house) were elected from 129 districts of between one and six seats each. This system had been in use since 1947 and had produced a distinctive approach to elections among the major parties, particularly the LDP. Under this system any party that hoped to win enough seats to obtain a majority or a significant minority of seats needed to put up multiple candidates in most districts. Thus, in order to maximize their representation, parties needed to find methods of ensuring that each candidate would poll the minimum number of votes required to be elected, rather than having each candidate follow his natural instincts by attempting to maximize his vote. A candidate who received more than his ‘fair share’ of the vote could actually hurt colleagues who received fewer votes: candidate A’s ‘unnecessary votes’ could be enough to prevent candidate B of the same party from gaining a seat.

The LDP dealt with this problem through particularistic policies that targeted selected groups of voters and provided them with ‘pork’ and other benefits. As the first winning party under the SNTV system, the LDP controlled the spoils of office, making it difficult for the various opposition parties to mount an effective challenge. Not surprisingly, this system contributed to corruption. Furthermore, under such a personal and particularistic system, political choice and debate based on substantive policy issues were not given due importance.

By the early 1990s citizens’ anger at the system had produced great pressure for electoral reform. The LDP’s inability to agree on and pass reform legislation contributed to a split in the party that gave power to the opposition (including the LDP defectors) in 1993. The concept of a US-style two-party system and frequent alternation of parties in government had grown in popularity among politicians, scholars and the media, and had come to be seen as a ‘magic bullet’ that would solve the problems of the Japanese political system. As a result, many called for the establishment of a system of single-member districts (SMDs). However, members of the smaller parties in the new government feared that this would crowd them out of the system and thus opposed such a move. The resulting compromise created the two-tier system that is in use today.

The reformed electoral system is a Parallel system consisting of two tiers—List PR and FPTP single-member districts. Each voter casts one vote in each tier. For the first election under this system, in 1996, there were 200 seats in the PR tier divided between 11 regional districts, ranging in size from seven to 33 seats, and 300 SMDs in the second tier. Efforts at rationalization led the Diet to reduce the number of PR seats to 180 prior to the second election in 2000. The 11 PR districts now range in size from six to 29 seats. In a Parallel system, there is no compensatory mechanism that adjusts the overall number of seats won by each party to better reflect the proportion of the vote actually received. The predominance of SMD seats over PR seats thus advantages larger parties that can win SMD seats. The two tiers of the Japanese electoral system are related in another, more unusual, way, however. Japan’s electoral laws allow candidates to mount dual candidacies by standing both on a PR list and for an SMD seat.

While the PR tier is technically closed-list, there is also a provision that allows for some degree of voter influence over the ranking of candidates on the lists. Parties are allowed to present lists that give equal rankings to some or all of those candidates who are nominated both on a party list and for an SMD. After those who win in the SMDs are removed from consideration, the final ranking of the SMD losers on the PR list is determined by how well each polled in comparison to the winner in his or her district.

This provision has a number of benefits for parties. First, it allows them to abdicate the politically challenging job of ranking candidates. Second, it encourages candidates who are ranked equally on the PR lists to campaign more vigorously to win votes in their districts. While parties do make much use of equal ranking, they also retain the option to give some candidates firm rankings. This is also useful, as a higher or ‘safe’ ranking on the PR list can be used as an incentive to convince a candidate to run in a single-member district in which there is little chance of winning.

The first trial of the system came in 1996, and the results were largely seen as disappointing. In the years since the new electoral laws were passed, the LDP had re-established itself in power and the opposition parties had undergone a number of realignments. This instability led to the persistence of previous patterns, an overall win for the LDP, and little movement towards the hoped-for two-party system. The somewhat complicated nature of the system also produced dissatisfaction among the electorate, particularly regarding the phenomenon of losing SMD candidates being ‘resurrected’ in the PR tier. The results were especially counter-intuitive in cases in which the first- and third- (and occasionally fourth-) placed candidates from a single-member district won seats but the second-placed candidate (usually from the most competitive of the opposition parties) failed to win a place. It was also unclear that any significant decline in corruption and money politics had taken place.

By the time of the second election under the new system, in 2000, there had been a reduction in the number of competitive candidates vying for each SMD seat. However, the move towards a two-party system again made only slight progress as the non-communist opposition was still splintered and the centrist Komeito party had switched sides and joined the LDP-led coalition.

The third test of the new system took place in November 2003. In September, the small Liberal Party merged with the dominant opposition Democratic Party (DPJ). The merged party (which retained the DPJ name) gained an impressive 40 seats in an election that featured the use of party manifestos for the first time. The remaining opposition parties of significant size lost all but a few of their seats. On the government side, the LDP and the smaller of its two coalition parties also lost seats, leading to the smaller party being absorbed by the LDP. With most seats concentrated in the hands of the two leading parties, only Komeito remains as a significant small party. The LDP is still in coalition with Komeito, in part because it needs Komeito support in the upper house, but also because support from the well-organized Komeito played a large part in the victories of many of its SMD candidates.

The results of the legislative election of 2003 support the idea that the effects of electoral system reform are not felt immediately and that entrenched habits and processes require time to change. These outcomes also suggest that the mixed-member system may not be likely to produce a complete consolidation into a US-style two-party system, as the existence of the PR tier allows third parties to persist.

Contributors: Cox, Karen

last modified March 14, 2006 07:54



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