University of Tokyo Prof.: Party leaders, election promises influence today’s voters

This is the sixth installment of a series reflecting on the single-seat constituency system over the last 25 years. The following is excerpted from an interview with the University of Tokyo Prof. Masaki Taniguchi.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Do you think the electoral system managed to solve some of the problems related to money in politics?

Masaki Taniguchi: It is clear that election campaigns have become less costly. Under the multi-member electoral district system, candidates of the same political parties competed for seats, and thus there was a critical view that the system was a hotbed for money-driven politics. Factions in the Liberal Democratic Party proactively fielded candidates, who competed fiercely, promising to bring benefits to the local community.

In those years, it was said that being an LDP Diet member involved costs of at least ¥100 million a year. Now, the typical amount is said to be ¥20 million to ¥30 million.

The combination of the two voting systems changed politics: More importance was placed on political parties or policies rather than individual candidates. Major bribery scandals like the Recruit scandal (see below) have been rare. Although it is not perfect, the transparency of political funding has improved.

Q: However, there have been repeated scandals, such as a large-scale vote-buying in the 2019 House of Councillors election in the Hiroshima prefectural electoral district.

A: Of course, we are not yet at the goal. But the reason why LDP headquarters provided ¥150 million for the election campaigns was that it wanted to dominate the two seats in the Hiroshima prefectural electoral district. The scandal indicated how ugly a multi-member electoral district system can become, with candidates from the same party fiercely competing against each other.

Q: There is an opinion that single-seat constituency systems could foster populism.

A: In general theories of political science, populism is considered to tend to emerge under a proportional representation system. For example, the right-wing populist U.K. Independence Party supported Britain’s exit from the European Union, and it gained a large number of seats in the European Parliament, which employs proportional representation. However, in Britain’s lower house, under a simple single-seat constituency system, the party was able to gain only a few seats.

If it is true that populism has progressed, unpopular bills such as a law to protect classified information and bills related to security issues would not have been able to pass through the Diet, and raising the consumption tax rate twice would not have been possible.

Evaluations of party leaders and election promises are now the main factors that influence the decisions of voters. The electoral system reforms could be viewed as a success as the goal was for more importance to be placed on political parties and policies.

Japan is struggling to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic, amid tough fiscal conditions and a declining population. Only political parties can present hard-to-take measures like tax hikes to the public. To prevent politics from descending into populism, we need to properly evaluate party-led politics.

Q: What do you think of the current situation in which the LDP is the sole dominant party?

A: I don’t think it is good when power shifts occur after every election. In Britain, under its single-seat constituency system, Conservative Party administrations under two prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, lasted for 18 years. After that, the Labour Party took the reins of government for 13 years, but the Conservatives regained power and have been in government for 11 years.

In comparison, the government led by the LDP and Komeito has continued for only about eight and a half years in Japan. Of course, if the LDP-Komeito administration makes a disastrous political mistake and opposition parties can attract votes from people who are against the administration, it is very possible that a power shift will occur even under the current electoral system.

Q: Concern has been expressed about a drop in the standard of lawmakers, with comments within the LDP referring to “terrible third-termers.”

A: I’m not comfortable with the opinion that a drop in standards is linked to the electoral system. I have not heard an opinion that politicians in the United States and Britain under single-seat constituency systems have more problems in terms of qualifications compared with politicians in countries under the proportional representation systems. Rather, it is problematic that the executive members of parties who control the endorsements of candidates under the single-seat constituency system have not been able to properly fulfill their responsibility to foster personnel.

I also don’t think politicians in past eras were greater than today’s crop. Some may say that politicians have smaller statures than those in the past but it’s like the thinking of some elderly people who complain of young people today.

The current situation is also affected by such factors as changing values in society and stricter monitoring of the words and actions of lawmakers, even in private. We live in an age when journalists are on the lookout for scandals involving lawmakers and anybody can easily use smartphones to obtain proof of wrongdoings. As the kind of misconduct that did not surface in the past, now reaches the public instantly, in some respects, things are more difficult for today’s lawmakers.

— The interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Kotaro Sueyoshi.

Recruit scandal

Recruit Co. founder Hiromasa Ezoe gave a large number of unlisted stocks of real estate firm Recruit Cosmos to influential people in political, business and bureaucratic circles. The scandal, which came to light in 1988 and led to the resignations of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, among others. The scandal resulted in a serious distrust of politics among the public and ignited debates on reforms, including changes to the electoral system and the strengthening of restrictions in the Political Funds Control Law.

Masaki Taniguchi

University of Tokyo professor Taniguchi was a guest professor at Stanford University in the United States after graduating from the Faculty of Law of the University of Tokyo. A specialist in modern Japanese politics, he has been in his current post since 2009. He is also president of the Nippon Institute for Research Advancement. Taniguchi has written several books, including “Gendai-Nihon no Daihyo-sei Minshu-Seiji” (Representative Democracy in Japan: Voters and Politicians).