Former LDP Secretary General Ozawa talks single-seat constituencies becoming ingrained in Japan

This is the seventh and final installment of a series reflecting on the single-seat constituency system over the last 25 years. The following is excerpted from an interview with House of Representatives member Ichiro Ozawa.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: You called for the introduction of a single-seat constituency system for the House of Representatives and took the lead in a change of government twice.

Ozawa: It think it can be said that democracy in Japan at long last took its first baby steps. I advocated the introduction of the single-seat constituency system from the time of my first election to the lower house. Democracy entails making it possible to change the government in the next election if the current administration is not serving the people. However, under the multiple-seat constituency system in which three to five candidates are chosen from one electoral district, it was hard for opposition parties to field a majority of candidates, making it extremely difficult to take power. The result was that the Liberal Democratic Party held sole power for a long time, which gave rise to political decay and corruption.

As mistrust of government was growing, a non-LDP coalition led by Morihiro Hosokawa came into power in 1993, leading to the fall of the “1955 political system.” (see below) Under the Hosokawa administration, political reform legislation was passed, leading to the introduction of an electoral system combining the single-seat constituency system with proportional representation for the lower house. In the lower house election of 2009, the then-Democratic Party of Japan won an overwhelming victory, and a full-fledged transition of power was achieved.

In the three single elections held in April, opposition-affiliated candidates won all three races. Each election had one seat up for grabs in either the upper or lower house, and the people supported an opposition candidate. The voters clearly showed that they feel the current administration is not looking out for their interests. It’s now been 25 years since the single-seat constituency system was introduced, and perhaps the people’s consciousness is gradually changing.

Q: What prompted you to believe that the introduction of a single-seat constituency system was needed for Japanese politics?

A: My father [Saeki Ozawa, a former lower house member] was also an advocate of the single-seat constituency system. Although I never talked politics with him, it got me thinking about that.

For many decades after the war, there was no change of government in Japan, keeping democracy from fulfilling its intrinsic functions. The Japanese people tend not to express their intentions clearly. Such a lack of clarity is reflected in the multiple-seat constituency system. To get people into the habit of clearly choosing a single candidate, I thought the single-seat constituency system was needed.

In this respect, the British election system was used as a model for the system adopted. Even in Britain, there was an era of rampant political decay and corruption, but after introducing a single-seat constituency system and enacting laws to thoroughly root out corruption, a parliamentary democracy was established. That is why I have visited Britain many times since becoming a Diet member.

Q: There was also opposition to election system reform, to which the interests of legislators were linked, wasn’t there?

A: The majority of LDP lawmakers opposed the reforms. Even though they were aware that a single-seat constituency system would be favorable to the LDP, in their logic they questioned the need to purposely change their traditionally stable electoral base.

I was secretary general of the LDP at the time, and one day [former Foreign Minister] Masayoshi Ito and [former Chief Cabinet Secretary] Masaharu Gotoda of the party’s political reform headquarters came to my office. Back then, they were in the spotlight as sort of “gods of political reform.” But they made a proposal to me, saying, “Secretary General, as the introduction of a single-seat constituency system is difficult, let’s present a bill this time in name only, calling for it to be introduced at some other time.” When I replied: “Give me a break. We’re really going to introduce it,” both left dumbfounded.

Within the LDP back then, the atmosphere prevailed that it would be impossible to introduce a single-seat constituency system. To make it happen, I had no choice but to run the risk of splitting the LDP’s biggest faction at the time (the Takeshita faction led by Noboru Takeshita) and leaving the party.

Creating viable alternatives

Q: Both of the two non-LDP administrations were short-lived. Any points for reflection?

A: The consecutive coalition governments of Hosokawa and [Tsutomu] Hata saw disarray within the ruling parties, inviting the breakaway of the Japan Socialist Party. As the administration led by the DPJ lacked the will to carry out its own manifesto [policy pledges], losing the trust of the people was inevitable. This primarily stemmed from its inability to pierce the thick walls of the bureaucracy and maintain a politician-led administration.

Concerning the consumption tax rate hike, if [former Prime Minister Yoshihiko] Noda had accepted a flexibility clause that would have allowed for changes in the tax rate in line with the economic situation, we would not have opposed the consumption tax bill, and it would have been settled.

Some say that the people were traumatized by the mistakes of the DPJ government. But mistakes occur in things done by human beings. To have a parliamentary democracy take hold in Japan that enables a transition of power, we have to realize such a change one more time.

But the biggest problem facing the opposition parties today is that they have little ambition to take over power. As such, they cannot gain the people’s support. Nothing can be achieved by just making noise from the outside. In the next lower house election, opposition parties must form a solidly united front and clearly present an alternative choice for government.

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

The 1955 political system

The postwar political system in which the Liberal Democratic Party stayed in power and the Japan Socialist Party was the biggest opposition party. In October 1955, the left and right factions of the JSP reunited, and in November, the Japan Democratic Party (Nihon Minshuto) and the Liberal Party (Jiyuto) merged in a conservative coalition to form the LDP. Thus it is called the 1955 political system. As the LDP and the JSP were rivals against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the single-party rule of the LDP long went unchallenged. But the LDP lost its majority in the lower house election in 1993, leading to the non-LDP coalition government under Morihiro Hosokawa and bringing down the curtain on 38 consecutive years of LDP rule.

Ichiro Ozawa, 78

Graduated from the Faculty of Economics at Keio University. Elected to the lower house for the first time in 1969 from the former Iwate No. 2 Constituency. Having served such cabinet positions as home affairs minister, he became secretary general of the LDP at the age of 47. Left the LDP in 1993 to form the Japan Renewal Party. Led the establishment of the non-LDP coalition government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Under the DPJ-led administration, he clashed with party leadership in 2012 over the consumption tax rate hike and left the party with about 50 DPJ members. Currently a lower house member from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. Has been elected to the lower house 17 times.