Thursday, July 30, 2009

All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Upcoming Japanese Election But Were Too Bored to Google on Your Own

Study Time!

I realize not everyone is fully up to date on the details of the coming election so I thought I'd give a primer of sorts for those not in the loop. I'm no expert on Japanese politics, or on anything related to it. Give this all the consideration an online rant by a nobody is worth, in other words. It's long, so I've set it in a question and answer format for simplicity.

Q: Election, huh?

A: Yes. National elections to the lower house must be held within four years of the previous one. The prime minister can decide for himself when to call an election, though. An election has been expected for more than a year already, but it has repeatedly been put off for various reasons. Now time is running out and the current prime minister has little choice left. This election will be on August 30th.
Two-thirds of the seats in the lower house are single-seat constituencies, where candidates represent a specific area and one winner takes all. One third are proportional, where you have a number of seats for a large area and the parties assign people to the seats in proportion to the votes the parties got. So people vote twice, once for their representative and once for the party proportional seats in their region.

Getting the vote

Q: Both single-seat, and proportional?

A: Bit of an interesting hybrid, really; Sweden, for instance, has only proportional seats while countries like Britain has only single-seat voting.

The single-seat system - where the winner gets the seat and the losers get nothing - heavily rewards the largest parties. You can have two parties with almost the same number of sympathizers, but one party gets almost all seats. You can even get a result where the party with the largest number of votes still come out with only a minority of seats. It tends to create two-party systems that reduce choice and representation. On the other hand, it usually gives you strong governments with stable majorities.

Proportional election systems doesn't penalize smaller parties so much, so the representatives in the house - and the available parties - tend to reflect the aggregate views of the voters. But it can also give you weak governments that depends on voting support from other parties, and that can give small parties an outsize influence on the agenda.

The Japanese compromise tries to combine the benefits of both. Not a bad idea, perhaps, but it seems to combine the drawbacks as well. Small parties are very underrepresented in the Diet here; at the same time, in the last few years Japan has had an LDP government completely dependent on the small New Komeito to govern, and opposed by the DPJ who controls the upper house only by cooperating with a number of small parties.

Q: Ah, yes, parties. So, what do we have?

A: There's two main parties in this election, the incumbent LDP and the opposition DPJ.

The LDP is a conservative party of old political dynasties, torn between wildly divergent factions, lacking any ideological coherence, and with few policy ideas beyond staying in power.

The DPJ is a conservative party of old political dynasties, torn between wildly divergent factions, lacking any ideological coherence, and with few policy ideas beyond gaining power.

Q: Ummm...

Election Candidate
JCP Campaign

A: We also have the supporting cast of small parties. The election system penalizes small parties but they're still important since the major parties need their support. There's two small parties that manage to matter on a national scale: New Komeito and the Japan Communist Party (yes, you could argue that the social democrats is a third, even smaller one; but this is getting too long already).

New Komeito is the support party to the ruling LDP and the political arm of Soka Gakkai, a large religious sect. The party is vaguely similar to European Christian Democrat parties, both by being grounded in deeply held religious and ethical beliefs and by being very flexible about said beliefs whenever they conflict with the goal of political power. They get about 13% of the vote (but fewer seats).

The Japan Communist Party is similar to many European socialist and communist parties and has evolved from a revolutionary organization into a fairly generic left-wing party. And like its European counterparts, the party rhetoric tends to be more strident than the actual policies it pursues. It is noteworthy for being the largest non-conservative national party. They get about 7% of the vote, but again far fewer seats (they don't have a single single-seat constituency in fact, only proportional seats).

There's a gaggle of smaller parties that hold just a few seats each. They're peripheral to the election itself but do matter since the major parties need their support. There's also the "Happiness Realization Party", a newcomer. They're part of the new Happy Science cult, similar in spirit to scientology - the leader talks with Jesus and Buddha, and aliens will return to Earth in the 24th century - and batshit insane. A harmless diversion just as long as they don't manage to get elected anywhere.
It's worth noting that the combined vote totals for the small parties equaled that of either of the two main parties in the latest upper house election. The political stage may be dominated by the LDP and DPJ but the electorate is a lot more diverse than the election results may indicate.

Q: OK, but the election is mainly about the LDP and the DPJ, right?

A: Right.

Q: So, leaving the trite quip above aside, what's the difference between them?

A: Well, the LDP is fielding Tarō Aso, the current prime minister, and incidentally the third LDP prime minister in a row to get the job unelected. He's the fifth-generation scion of an old political dynasty, grandson of a prime minister and wealthy heir to a major construction company conglomerate. At 70 years, he's not exactly a spring chicken any more. With his weathered face, hoarse voice and glum expression he comes across rather like a grumpy old potato.

After Ozawa's departure, the DPJ candidate is Yukio Hatoyama. He's the fourth-generation scion of an old political dynasty, grandson of a prime minister and heir to Bridgestone, making him even wealthier than Aso. His brother Kunio was until recently a minister in Aso's LDP government. He's a fair bit younger than Aso of course, and has managed the rare feat of getting caught in a political fund raising scandal with himself as both donor and recipient - a possible first in Japanese politics. He is losing his hair big time.

As an aside, Hatoyama's grandfather Ichirō Hatoyama and Aso's grandfather Shigeru Yoshida were political rivals, and Hatoyama replaced Yoshida as prime minister in the 1950's. Yes, more than a few people see the symbolism of history repeating itself with their grandchildren.

So there's your choice: a conservative scion of an old, monied political dynasty that looks like a potato; or a conservative scion of an old, monied political dynasty that is going bald.

Q: You don't choose a party based on the look of the Prime minister candidate!

A: Don't be so dismissive - the winner is going to be all over the media for the next six months or so. Might as well be someone you can stand to look at, right?

Q: But what about politics? What about policy?

A: What about it?

Q: Surely the LDP and the DPJ have real, serious policy differences?

A: Well, yes and no. They occupy much the same end of the political spectrum, and their politicians hail from the same political dynasties. A substantial part of DPJ members are ex-LDP, and a lot of LDP and DPJ politicians are all related to each other. Of course, while the parties overlap there is a difference around the extremes, with LDP harboring more people of the loony right than DPJ while the DPJ has a more influential - or at least more visible - social liberal group than the LDP.

So yes, there are some real political differences. And they're playing them up for all they can during the campaign of course. But - with one exception - it doesn't make any difference in practice.

Q: It doesn't? Why?

A: I'm glad you asked. There's three reasons.

Q: Three?

A: Yes, three. Pay attention.

Homeless tent
A big tent for Aso

These are "big tent" parties, and it's fair to say that they have few specific policies that are supported by everyone within the party. In both the LDP and DPJ, for instance, some are in favor of the postal reform while others are bitterly opposed and want it reversed. Some in both parties are in favor of a stronger, independent Japanese military and a revision of the pacifist clause of the constitution; some are steadfastly against.

So election rhetoric notwithstanding, the policies that will actually be pursued won't be decided until after the public election. Over the coming months, the winning party will have an internal fight among its interest groups over what direction to take and what policies to follow. That fight will lead them toward the political center on most issues.

Second, neither party can govern alone. The DPJ holds the upper house but is dependent on small parties to do so. The winner will need cooperation from the upper house and will be dependent on the small parties there (and the DPJ, if LDP wins) to get any legislation enacted. It's also likely that the winner will be dependent on one or more small parties in the lower house, like the LDP is dependent on New Komeito now.
In effect pretty much everyone in the diet will have a say on policies, guaranteeing a bland middle-of-the-road compromise government no matter who wins. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it means a radical agenda is off the table.

Q: You mentioned a third reason?

A: The third reason is economic. The current crisis is hitting Japan very hard. Japan was already in bad shape before, with an enormous public debt, rapid increase of pensioners and a social insurance system badly adapted to the changing society and an unraveling employment system. The next government is going to have their hands tied economically.

Both parties are pushing some specific vote-grabbing measures they will have to honor. The DPJ is pushing for a substantial raise in the child allowance, for instance, while the LDP wants to make preschool free of charge. The winner will have to enact at least some of those measures or risk swift and serious backlash. But as far as overall policies and the general political direction is concerned, who wins really isn't going to make much of a difference.

Q: But there was one exception?

A: There is. Policies and people may not differ much between the main parties, but there is one difference that really matters:

Administrators at work

The LDP has been in power for over half a century. The DPJ has not. With the same party almost constantly in power, the Japanese bureaucracy has become thoroughly politicized. Appointments have all been via the LDP, and the same people move between the LDP, the bureaucracy and the private sector, creating a strong interdependence between party and administration.

The unelected, unsupervised bureaucracy can and does create and change policy by itself, unchecked by the political leaders theoretically in control. It's a political power comparable to the main parties, rather than a neutral, professional body implementing government policy. On occasion, turf battles between ministeries have gone out of hand to the point where it's materially hurt the country. Needless to say, that's not a healthy state of affairs.

So on one hand the LDP, with their deep connections in the bureaucracy, is more likely to get its policies enacted than the DPJ, which will have to fight their own ministeries to get their policies implemented. On the other hand, the DPJ stands a better chance of reforming this system over time and breaking this unhealthy politicization of the bureaucracy. In fact, just having any party other than LDP in power for a couple of electoral cycles would make a major difference, since it'd remove some of the strong incentives for administrators to hitch their career wagon to a single party.
In fact, this factor alone is important enough for a lot of people to support a DPJ win, in the face of any and all deficiencies of the actual party.

Q: OK, so the nitty-gritty stuff isn't going to differ much, and the things that matter have little to do with any actual party policies. But they must still be running on some kind of platform, right?

A: Sure. The DPJ platform is, in short, "We Are Not The LDP".

Not too creative, true, but it has the advantage of simplicity. It's really saying that the LDP is responsible for all that ails the dysfunctional Japanese political culture - the favoritism; the graft; the partisan bureaucracy; the low-level grubbiness; and the handouts to the construction industry, the agricultural sector, rural party sympathizers and just about anybody else with an outstretched hand and a roomy conscience.

A vote for the DPJ, they argue, would be a vote against this dysfunctional culture. Of course, It presumes the voters will overlook that the DPJ members are steeped in the very same culture, and that the party has a history of setting low expectations only to fail meeting them.

Q: And the LDP platform?

A: Is just as disarmingly simple: "We Are The LDP".

Q: Huh?

A: Really. They can't run on not being the LDP after all - well, Koizumi did just that in the 2005 election and got away with it. But Koizumi was a showman and could convince people by force of personality. Aso is not, and can not.

The approach isn't bad. Remember all that favoritism, graft and political back-scratching that the LDP is so famous for? A lot of people have benefited from it over many years of LDP rule. The construction industry, medical associations, farming and food production - the list goes on and on. It's not a bad idea to remind all those people just who's been buttering their toast for the past half century.

They argue that while they may be corrupt and venal, they're at least good at it. They have fifty years or more of experience, and the bureaucracy is at least listening to them. The DPJ, they say, is too inexperienced to be entrusted with the levers of power. It's a neat one-size-fits-all argument; by their own definition no other party than LDP could ever be considered for a position of power.

Q: Ok... But the Aso government has, what, 20% approval, right? And the LDP is faring no better in the polls. They've lost Tokyo and all other regional elections lately. Nobody's going to vote for them, right. Right?

A: It is an uphill battle for the LDP, true - but many people who vote LDP aren't really voting for Aso or for the LDP. Politics is local, and people vote for their local representatives as much as for a national party.

Harbor bridge
Aomori Bay Bridge.

You may not like Aso too much, but chances are you don't really care; the guy who really matters to you is your diet representative. He is the one making sure there is money flowing into the community by whatever means necessary. That grey concrete highway overpass may not look too hot but it did create a lot of local work for years when it was being built, and the rest stop is a source of jobs for dozens of people in the area. Every farming subsidy, every visitor's centre or lavish museum, every government contract to a local business, every allocation for school children with special needs is flowing directly or indirectly through your representative.

Q: So the LDP is basically buying the vote through its local representatives?

A: Well, that's too cynical a way to put it, I think.

The thing is, in rural districts especially, the local diet member probably really is local. He's likely been in office for years and years, and chances are his father or uncle held the same seat before him. He may well have been your councilman in the local assembly before moving to the national level; his relatives may be in local politics right now. His family business may have dealt with your family business for generations. He's a long-time recipient of donations and other help from the local business community - legal or not - that guarantees him as a champion for the local economy. He may be a crooked, underhanded politician, but at least he is your crooked, underhanded politician.

Q: So, really, for a lot people the election is not primarily about the national government at all, then?

A: Exactly. Of course the national issues matter - and especially now, when the LDP is doing its level best to collapse - but the local aspect is very important.

And locally, many communities are faced with a choice. You may choose the long-time representative, who may be crooked, perhaps, and associated with a disliked LDP, but who has a proven track record in siphoning off money to the local community and to local businesses. Or you choose a new DPJ representative who may be a local politician, but without proven, reliable political connections on the national level. More worrying, the DPJ representative and his party is arguing against the current system of interdependence between government, bureaucracy and local businesses that so many people are benefiting from, and that's an applecart a lot of people want left unturned.

Q: So, come August 30, what will happen?

A: Who will win? No idea. It does look good for the DPJ, but they have an absolutely limitless ability to screw things up. The LDP is backed by a lot of powerful business and community interests and has a history of pulling off improbable victories. The election system, with single seat districts, is another wild card. Small shifts in voting patterns and distribution of votes can have a large effect on the final outcome. Also, rural districts that traditionally favor the LDP have much more voting power in the national elections than the large urban districts.

My guess is - and I'm saying this with all the authority of someone who blissfully slept through his three years of high-school social science classes - that what will ultimately decide this election is not Aso's impopularity or the DPJ's blunders, but the track record the LDP has in the regional centers and rural areas. That's where the power shift will have to take place for the DPJ to pull off a win.

As I said, politics is local and rural districts have favored their long-time LDP representatives. But it's becoming clear that the system doesn't really work anymore. There's little money left for the kind of stimulus funds local communities have depended on for many years, such as highway projects, museums, colleges and other subventions. Also, they don't actually seem to work. They don't revitalize communities or create jobs long term, they haven't prevented local economies from deteriorating, and the regions continue to bleed people - often the young and educated - to the major metropolitan areas, making the regions still older and poorer.

In other words, the LDP-created system has perhaps not been the bounty it seemed. Changing this system may not only be a good thing for the country overall, but for many depressed communities may be only chance they have left for survival at all. The election hinges, I think, on how many people realize this.

Choose wisely.


  1. Masterful, Janne. Yep, Our Man agrees all politics is local and Japanese are particularly big on two-way relationships. The question is are enough people ready to take a chance on the balding one?

  2. Great general survey!

    I agree with you that there is little that can be changed when it comes to domestic policy, and that the DPJ is only offering so much, but I think there is something to be said for how the DPJ might make a real difference in Japanese foreign policy. A lot of the DPJ's past rhetoric has been very critical of the US-Japan alliance, and this may be one area where the DPJ can actually change the status quo.

    The rise of China as a peer but not necessarily a direct competitor also means that the US may not have the same strategic view of Japan as a country to contain China as it once did, they may prefer to engage China rather then try and use Japan as a strategic hedge against them.

    Considering the DPJ has had no foreign policy experience, this allows for even greater mismanagement.

  3. Noah, thanks for the comment. My reply ended up being rather long so I'll make a new post instead.

  4. Shinji Takasugi29 August, 2009 09:27

    > The DPJ is a concervative party of old political dynasties, ...
    This vision seems absurd; the DPJ is a relatively new party supported by labor unions and against the nation's bureaucracy. Wikipedia explains it better than you.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Takasugi-san.

    It's not absurd in the least, though, even if I exaggerate a bit for rhetorical effect. The party is relatively new of course, and (as I also mention above) they are indeed gunning for the too-powerful bureucracy, an unalloyed good thing.

    But overall their members are largely the same people that populate the LDP, and they, too, have - to a lesser degree, true - a large share of members from the same old political dynasties that LDP draws their members from. Just take a look at Hatoyama and Ozawa, the two latest DPJ leaders.

    And overall the party is center conservative, just like the LDP. It has a larger liberal wing than the LDP but their political outlook is mostly overlapping. Of course, during the election campaign it's the differences that get highlighted, which makes a stronger impression of difference than really is the case.


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