Lower house speaker: 2-power bloc politics preferable to 2-party system

This year marks 25 years since the introduction of the system of combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation in House of Representatives elections. Has this made Japanese politics better over the last quarter century? In this series, The Yomiuri Shimbun puts the question to political heavyweights and pundits. Here, longtime House of Representatives Speaker Tadamori Oshima gives his views in the first installment.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What is the difference between a multiple-seat constituency system, under which you won your first election, and the current single-seat constituency system?

Omori: In the case of the multiple-seat constituency system, the toughest competition did not come from the candidate from another party, but from candidates from [my own] Liberal Democratic Party.

The electoral district was spread out over a very large area. While each LDP candidate tried to find a way to differentiate his or herself from the others, it inevitably intensified a patronage-driven battle. Candidates put more weight on how to create individual support groups throughout the constituency than the party organization.

The psychological warfare between candidates of the same party was really stressful. For example, when I heard that a rival candidate visited some company to pay their regards, it made me uneasy and think, “I should’ve gone there, not him.” Or I might think, “I heard that a rival made a campaign stop in so-and-so area, so I have to also.”

Under such circumstances, debate on political reform made progress from the [Noboru] Takeshita Cabinet to the [Toshiki] Kaifu Cabinet [1987 to 1991], and the multiple-seat constituency system was identified as having structural problems. The problem of money in politics exploded with the Recruit scandal and others like it, and, coupled with a volatile international situation, led to widespread public distrust in politics.

Q: What were the positive aspects of shifting to a single-seat constituency system?

A: Because electoral districts were made smaller, it made it possible for us to have more personal talks with voters. In the lower house election of 1996, when the single-seat constituency system was first introduced, the [Ryutaro] Hashimoto Cabinet was calling for a hike in the consumption tax rate. The system gave us an advantage by allowing us to fully explain face-to-face our stance on why the tax increase was necessary.

More than anything, I was freed from facing off against my colleagues, and felt that the conditions let me campaign with stress-free vigor from a psychological standpoint. It gave me energy to fight with a determination that “I’m representing the LDP. So I have to fight as the party’s representative.”

Also, debates with other parties during the campaigns allowed us to highlight the differences in party policies more clearly than we could under the multiple-seat constituency system.

Q: The introduction of the single-seat constituency system has weakened the party factions.

A: More than weakening, I regard it as a qualitative change in the role of factions. At the time of multiple-seat constituencies, factions competed to expand their influence, and had a stronger influence than the party on Diet members’ behavior. There was also the realistic side that being in a faction with many Diet members was necessary to win the party presidential election.

But with the change in the electoral system, competition between LDP members was eliminated, causing the factional structure to collapse and strengthening the party leadership, which has the authority to nominate candidates. [Former Prime Minister] Junichiro Koizumi opposed the introduction of the single-seat constituency system, but then took full advantage of his leadership and authority as prime minister and party president to promote postal reform. [The party] did not endorse those opposed to the reform as candidates. During the age of multiple-seat constituencies, this would have been all but impossible.

Q: What effect did it have on the Diet?

A: A debate between party leaders was introduced to reflect in the Diet the goal of electoral reforms that allow voters to choose the government. The idea is for the party leaders to vie with each other in an open forum to show which party has the ability to be entrusted to govern, and letting the people decide who they prefer.

Q: Is a two-party system that allows a transfer of power still far off?

A: There has been transfers of power since the current system was introduced, and it is still possible. It leaned toward creating a two-party system similar to those in Britain and the United States, and aimed to make policy debates more transparent. But, given the current political situation, I think such a two-party system is impossible in Japan. Japan is a “consensus society” where issues are discussed to find common ground. Historically, too, I don’t think Japan has the spiritual climate to make clear-cut decisions in black and white through debate.

Recently, there have also been issues of diversity. When there are only two major parties, there is a limit to how much they can take in the voices of the people to make a decision agreeable to all. If two major parties are not possible, it is desirable to form two major powers consisting of multiple parties. The current ruling bloc is a coalition of the LDP and Komeito. Opposition forces should also coordinate their policies to put up a united front. On that basis, it is important for each party to gather diverse opinions, discuss them, then make a decision. At that point, I think they can compete against each other.

—The interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Maki Sanbuichi.

System of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation

This system combines single-seat constituencies, in which voters choose a single constituency vote for the candidate of their choosing, and proportional representation, in which the country is divided into 11 electoral districts in which votes are cast for political parties. It was first introduced for the lower house election in October 1996 as part of political reforms that abolished the multiple-seat constituency system, in which three to five candidates were elected from each constituency. The multiple-seat constituency — in which candidates from the same party vied against each other — was criticized for creating hotbeds of money-influenced politics. The parallel system was adopted to make it more possible to vote in a new government.

Tadamori Oshima

House of Representatives Speaker / A graduate of Keio University’s law department, Oshima, 74, was first elected to the lower house under the multiple-seat constituency system from the former Aomori Constituency No. 1 in 1983. He has served in such Liberal Democratic Party posts as secretary general and vice president. In December last year, he became the longest-serving lower house speaker, surpassing the previous record set by Yohei Kono of 2,029 days. He has been elected a lower house member 12 times.