Democracy in Japan – Electoral Rules Matter

It is useful to study the history of democracy in Japan to highlight an aspect that is almost completely overlooked in South Asia – the critical relevance of electoral rules. 

Japan is termed “the only stable industrialized democracy in Asia, with a well-established parliament, political parties that vigorously compete in elections, and a solidly legitimate democratic constitution.” It is a “predominant party democracy” in which the same party was consistently supported by voters under free and competitive conditions for a very long time (38 years). However, “the Japanese formula for a successful, dominant party democracy has had its negative effects – the role of excess money in politics and corruption.” 

All these aspects are related to electoral rules “since the electoral system is a major determinant of a political regime:”

In many newly-emerging democracies the choice of an electoral system is increasingly being recognized as a vital element in democratic constitutional design. The nature of the electoral system can make a great deal of difference in which various democratic principles are pursued and whether the stability and management of the political apparatus are maintained effectively… electoral rules can make or break a party – or even a country. Electoral rules are also much easier to change than other components of a political system. Though many scholars agree that the form of an electoral system has important democratic consequences, scholars differ in their prescriptions for emerging democratic states. The choice is primarily between proportional representation and plurality elections, but sometimes they prefer mixed systems combining these two principles.

1993 was a watershed year in Japan’s political history when one party rule ended after 38 years. “In 1994, the electoral system for the powerful Lower House of the Japanese Parliament was changed from the 70-year old system based on a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) in multi-member constituencies to the mixed system combining single-member constituencies and proportional representation (PR). This change in the electoral system is the most radical innovation in Japan since the adoption of the present constitution in 1947.”

The previous electoral system used for the Japanese Lower House was unique among established democratic countries, in that it combined multimember districts and a single non-transferable vote. The system had features that distinguished it radically from both plurality and proportional systems. Members of the Lower House were chosen from electoral districts with magnitudes ranging from two to six seats, with most having between three to five seats, depending on the population of the district. In a four-member district, for example, the top four vote-getters were elected and the candidate who came fifth lost. Each voter was allowed to cast a ballot for only one candidate in a multi-member district, making elections an area of competition between the parties and among the candidates within the same party. A voter could not transfer his vote in any preferential manner.

An ideal democratic electoral system is one permitting all voters to cast an equally weighted ballot – the one-person, one-vote, one-value rule. Proportionality of votes to legislative seats is central to democracy. There are, however, various reasons to deviate from this ideal. No known electoral system, moreover, guarantees absolute numerical equality in the value of one vote. Generally, the disproportionality between votes and seats is large in systems with plurality elections and small in PR systems [where disproportionality is defined as] the deviation of seat shares from vote shares.

[In Japan] the medium-sized election district system heavily favored voters in some districts over others, and indeed, it was not intended to create proportionality. It was introduced in 1925 to benefit two conservative parties existing at that time. The Japanese electoral boundaries were established in 1947, when the population was heavily agrarian. It has consistently favored rural voters. Despite occasional, albeit limited, reapportionment, cross-district inequalities in Japan have become an increasingly serious problem. In extreme cases in the general elections of 1972 and 1993, it took four to five times as many votes to elect a representative in the most densely populated urban district as in the most overrepresented rural one.

This was not an issue that went unnoticed:

The public expressed outrage at the gross inequalities in the value of a vote across constituencies almost every time elections were conducted. The Supreme Court wrestled with this issue on five occasions after urban voters filed lawsuits contesting the constitutionality of the elections. In 1976 and again in 1985, it ruled that such an inequality is unconstitutional because it violates the constitutional guarantee of equality under the law.

The rural bias of the Japanese electoral system, and thus excessive representation of rural interests in the Diet, affected the policies of successive… governments which aided agricultural sectors at expense of urban consumers.

The author of the article from which this material is taken (Kazuki Iwanga, Dominant Party Democracy and the Politics of Electoral Reform in Japan in The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia edited by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo, 2000) writes that “most political scientists generally agree that the electoral system to a large extent determines the party system and through it the type of government.”

A country’s electoral system appears to play an important role in handling social conflicts. An open electoral system like Japan’s multi-member constituencies facilitated easy entry through the legitimate democratic, political processes for small and new political parties. The evidence tends to indicate that when barriers to entry of new political parties are low, working through the existing electoral system is more common than protest demonstrations.

On the other hand there were some additional downsides of the electoral system:

One aspect of the political process in Japan is often criticized as being less than democratic – the excessive place of money in politics. Indeed, money has been looked upon as an aberrant force in Japanese parliamentary elections, probably more so than in most established democracies. The nature of the Japanese multimember, single non-transferable vote system took most of the blame for this. It gave strong incentives for candidates of the same party to compete for votes with each other in the same constituency, and therefore pushed candidates to campaign on constituency services… Since these candidates belonged to the same party, they had to wage election campaigns by ways other than the party’s policy line. They had to raise their own money and establish their own individual political machines, personal support organizations known as ‘koenkai’ which are essentially vote-mobilization organizations…. The high costs of establishing these support organizations are a major cause of ‘money politics’ and of the increase in the number of Diet members, sons or aides of retired or deceased parliamentarians who inherit an existing koenkai.

We will conclude this discussion here by reporting that beginning in the early 1990s all these issues came to a head culminating in a crisis of legitimacy in the political system and generating a major demand for political reform. “The debate about electoral reform revolved around the consequences of alternative electoral systems.” Finally in 1994, a reform was approved to replace the medium-sized electoral district system. In its place, a 500 seat lower house was divided into two categories – 300 seats to be elected in single-member constituencies and 200 from party lists in 11 large-bloc constituencies. “A voter casts two separate ballots, one for individual candidates and the other for a political party in a proportional representation system… and a candidate can run simultaneously in a single-member constituency and under the PR system.”

The electoral reform also included various direct measures to put an end to corruption and money politics in Japan. They included public funding of political parties, prohibition of financial contributions to individual candidates, and limits on the number of fund-raising organizations and strict limitations on the amount a business organization can contribute annually to each fund-raising group.

Readers interested in Japan should consult the details in the chapter by Iwanaga. We have spelled out this history to make the point that electoral rules matter and they can indeed make or break a country. These aspects have rarely been discussed or debated in South Asia. Would India have broken up if instead of separate electorates the British had introduced multimember constituencies? Would Sri Lanka have fared better with alternative rules? Could the conflict in Bangladesh have been avoided? Are the electoral rules we have in Pakistan today the one’s best suited to the country?

The author rightly concludes the article by stating that the electoral systems that are best for a particular country will depend upon the specific needs of that country: “Each national case is highly circumstantial and reflects both history in all its manifestations and, more specifically, the consequences of particular patterns of political mobilization.”

There is no one pre-ordained ideal democratic system. A system of governance rests on numerous specific rules. And these rules need to be chosen after systematic and intelligent debate in relation to the needs of a particular country.

We had earlier tried to impress the importance of rules using a different approach. Readers might wish to look back at Cricket in the Jungle.

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One Response to “Democracy in Japan – Electoral Rules Matter”

  1. Chad Schott Says:

    There are only 480 seats in the lower house of the Diet. Only 180 are selected from the 11 regions.

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