Electoral Reform in Japan?

New Law May Not Live up to Expectations         

Thomas Lundberg

        In 1994 Japan replaced its old electoral system, the single nontransferable vote (SNTV), with a new, mixed member system for the lower house of the Japanese Diet that combines plurality voting in single-member districts (for 300 seats) with regional, closed-list proportional representation (PR) for the remaining 200 seats.
        The previous SNTV system allowed voters one vote in elections for three to five representatives per constituency (except for a handful of smaller and larger ones), with the top vote-winning candidates taking those seats. While this form of limited voting is not considered a true PR system, SNTV in practice exhibited a degree of proportionality (comparing a party's allocation of seats won to its percentage of national popular vote) equivalent to some party list proportional systems with small districts.
        Because the smaller parties were consistently able to win some seats under SNTV, they resisted attempts by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to reform the system in a more majoritarian fashion, the direction always proposed by governments that were headed by the LDP from 1955 to 1993.
        LDP candidates campaigned against each other in most constituencies. Since they could not compete on a policy basis, they were forced to campaign on a more personal level, which critics contend led to corruption, parochial politics and incentives for high campaign spending.
        The other major complaint was the malapportionment of constituencies. Rural areas had more representation in the Diet than their population would justify -- sometimes at a 4:1 margin when compared to urban areas. This was seen as unfairly helping the LDP. Court decisions only brought about minor changes in the worst cases.
        After several scandals involving important LDP officials, public confidence was shaken, and a number of LDP members left the party. The LDP lost for the first time in the 1993 general election to a reformist coalition, composed mainly of former LDP members.

If party-centric politics is what the Japanese truly want, a better approach would likely have been to adopt a national closed party list PR system

Strong Elements of Majoritarianism

        One of the coalition's main priorities was to change the electoral system. After making proposals for a mixed system combining first-past-the-post and proportional voting, the LDP and the coalition agreed (after an initial defeat in the Diet's upper house and an increase in single-member seats at the LDP's request) on the 300/200 split.
        This new system, approved in December 1994, should not be confused with the German and New Zealand electoral systems, which also combine plurality and party list voting, but are fully-fledged PR. In these countries, the total allocation of parliamentary seats for parties is determined exclusively by the party list vote, meaning that single-member district candidates are included in that allotment.         In the Japanese plan -- like the mixed system used in Russia -- the plurality and PR list seats are completely separate and there is no party list compensation for the results of the 300 single-member district races. This means that the new electoral system has a strong element of majoritarianism; the largest, best organized parties are likely to gain the most seats at the expense of the smaller parties.
        For this reason, several small parties merged into a new conservative party called Shinshinto (New Frontier) in December, 1994. This party is largely the creation of ex-LDP member Ichiro Ozawa, a strong advocate of plurality voting and the majoritarian politics he believes it will bring to Japan (see his 1994 Blueprint for a New Japan).
        However, it is possible that many of his fellow citizens do not share his views. The Japanese press has a negative opinion of him, based upon his actions and the views of party members who know him. This coalition of parties may have a difficult time agreeing upon single candidates to stand under the Shinshinto banner in the single-member constituencies. While the LDP is unpopular, its support remained higher than that for Shinshinto (22% to 8%), according to an April 1995 survey by one of Japan's leading newspapers.
        Furthermore, the same survey revealed a startling 57% of Japanese voters sampled do not support any party, thus undermining one of the goals of the reform, which was to make politics more party-oriented. In fact, it is likely that the heavy dose of first-past-the-post voting will exacerbate personalized politics, as the LDP and Shinshinto are both conservative parties with few policy differences.
        The local elections in April 1995 indicated a surge in support for independent candidates, with the governorships for both Tokyo and Osaka won by candidates who had no party affiliation and did not even campaign.
        If party-centric politics is what the Japanese truly want, a better approach would likely have been to adopt a national closed party list PR system for the entire House of Representatives. A national legal threshold (minimum vote requirement) could be used to prevent excessive party fragmentation. In this way, the power of personalities and parochialism could be most effectively minimized, party cohesion maximized and electoral fairness better ensured.

        Thomas Lundberg received an MA in political science at George Washington University in 1995.

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