Political reforms are needed without the involvement of the ruling LDP

The Japanese public is once again losing patience with the Liberal Democratic Party.

Unable to address public concerns about the LDP faction bosses’ misuse of political funds and the country’s weak economic performance, the Kishida Cabinet’s support rate has been between 20 and 30 percent as of early 2024 .

Recent polls show that a large number of voters would like to see an opposition-led government, rather than an LDP-led government, in the upcoming general election.

However, prospects for an opposition victory remain slim as opposition parties struggle to coordinate candidate selection in single-member districts (SMDs).

The LDP and Komeito have coordinated in every election since 1999 to appoint a single, jointly supported candidate in each district, winning many seats with less than 50 percent of the vote because the non-coalition vote was split between two or more candidates .

This structural advantage has given the ruling coalition a large majority in every election since 2012, despite the parties winning less than half of the proportional representation (PR) vote each time.

What the opposition parties need is a reform agenda that brings them together to coordinate the SMD candidates and recruit independent voters by giving them a reason to believe that things will actually change this time.

The issue that should bring them together is “political reform without the LDP.” Opposition parties disagree on some issues, but they should all be able to get behind this agenda.

Japan has seen this move before. In 1993, after an escalating series of money scandals involving LDP faction bosses, voters brought a non-LDP coalition to power for the first time since the party formed in 1955.

This coalition made electoral reform its priority, recognizing that the old system made politics expensive and clientelistic and consolidated the LDP’s grip on power.

But the non-LDP coalition compromised at various stages (at one point relying on LDP votes to pass legislation) and ultimately produced an electoral reform that consolidated the dominant party’s grip on power and led to the bosses of the LDP faction fell back into the mire of money. scandals.

The electoral reform proposal that could bring together opposition parties and eliminate the LDP’s structural advantages is a 100 percent proportional representation system.

Such systems are common in Europe and have many advantages that should win the support of the non-LDP parties. Furthermore, by creating a better functioning political system, this proposal will enable the parties to implement broader economic and social reforms in the future.

The first advantage of this proposal for the opposition parties is that under a 100 percent PR system, the LDP and Komeito will not be able to win enough seats to form a majority government on their own.

Under this system, they would not have won a majority in every election since they became partners in 1999. The ruling coalition remains in power because under the current system it can convert a minority of votes into a majority of seats.

With PR, a party gets the share of seats equal to their share of the votes, so if these parties win only 45 percent of the votes, they will only get 45 percent of the seats and will have to negotiate and share power with other parties . parties to form a government.

If they cannot do that, they will have to make room for an opposition coalition to come to power.

A second benefit: Under this system, every vote counts, which should help the many apathetic voters who have been sitting on the sidelines to join the political process and run for election.

In SMD elections, votes cast for losing candidates do not count. In PR, each vote contributes to the election of a candidate from that party, as long as the party wins enough votes to cross the (low) threshold needed for a PR seat. Parties offer their agenda to voters, and voters vote for the party that offers the most attractive agenda.

A third benefit: A 100 percent PR system would allow Japan to join the many countries achieving greater representation of women through a quota system.

The parties could include a rule in Japan’s new electoral law that each party must list its PR candidates on the party list, so that if numbers 1 and 3 are men, numbers 2 and 4 must be women.

This rule would not violate the gender equality provisions of the Japanese Constitution, as men and women would receive equal treatment, and yet, through the operation of this rule, it would produce a diet that is approximately 50 percent male and 50 percent female.

A fourth benefit is that a 100 percent PR system will solve the maldistribution problem that has overrepresented Japan’s rural areas (and helped increase the LDP’s share of SMD seats). Democratic systems should operate under the rule of one person, one vote, and this reform would achieve that.

The fifth benefit is a little harder to explain, but voters will understand the basic logic. Under the current system, politicians must rely on ‘personal votes’.

They need voters to vote for them by name in SMDs, which means driving around in sound vans and repeating their names over and over again. Even those who win PR seats currently earn most of these seats through the best-loser provision, meaning even the PR winners have to win personal votes.

To win personal votes, candidates must raise substantial political funds, as they cannot win on party funds alone.

A 100 percent closed PR system (with candidates ranked by party) will require less political funding, because it is cheaper to advertise a platform than to operate a fleet of sound trucks.

This means that politicians can focus on governing rather than spending their time raising money for their personal campaigns or making deals with religious fringe groups to recruit volunteers for their personal campaigns in exchange for favors to that group .

Given how frustrated Japanese voters are with these personalistic, scandalous features of current politics, this political reform should help opposition parties capitalize on the Kishida government’s current problems and demonstrate that they have a concrete plan to clean up politics , beyond just tinkering with politics. rules for reporting political funds.

There are two criticisms that are sometimes leveled at 100 percent PR systems, but with the right design choices these issues can be mitigated.

One accusation is that PR systems are not as good as SMD systems at giving voters a local representative. This is especially a shortcoming if your PR system allocates seats in one district that covers all countries. In a larger country like Japan, such a system would leave voters from remote areas frustrated when most PR winners come from big cities.

A second charge is that PR systems enable the proliferation of micro-parties, making it difficult to form governments. This can also be a problem if the ‘size’ of the PR districts is so large that parties can win seats with less than 1 percent of the vote.

The solution to both problems is for Japan to organize its PR districts so that the most populous prefectures get their own PR district, while the less populous prefectures are linked to a neighboring country. For example, if Japan chose to allocate a total of 400 PR seats per population, Hokkaido would have 17 seats; Saitama 23; and Hyogo 17. Districts of this size do not allow micro-parties to win seats with just 1 percent of the vote.

Parties need about 5 percent of the vote to win a seat in districts of this size. Germany has a 5 percent threshold and has avoided party proliferation. This is also a threshold that the main opposition parties could agree on, as they have recently secured at least this share of the vote.

Ideally, opposition parties will be able to agree on more than just political reforms before the next elections. But a campaign focused on political reforms to make the system fairer and cleaner is something that will appeal to voters upset by the latest scandals, and these parties argue it will enable broader reforms in the future.

Once they establish that fairer and more competitive electoral system, any opposition party will be able to solicit votes with the credible claim that they can bring about broader change.


Len Schoppa is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, where he teaches Japanese politics and foreign relations.