Elections as beauty contests

With two weeks left in the “non-campaign” season, before candidates officially file, which marks the official campaign season during which candidates can actually ask for votes, I thought it would be worthwhile to share a passage from Gerald Curtis’s Election Campaigning Japanese Style. For those not familiar with the book, in 1966-1967 Curtis lived and worked under Sato Bunsei, an LDP candidate in Oita Prefecture’s second district (back in the days of multi-member medium-sized electoral districts). With the date of the dissolution of the Diet and the subsequent election unknown, Curtis noted Sato’s efforts to build a support base in the rural parts of the district, raise money to sustain political activities, and fight to muscle into the Diet in the face of competition from two senior LDP Diet members in the district.

Not being in a rural district, I cannot speak to changes in rural campaign methods, but I can attest to relative continuity in urban campaigning, in part due to the ongoing constraints imposed by Japan’s public election law. While campaigning in other democracies has been transformed by new media, legal restrictions in Japan have limited the impact of television, the internet, and even radio on campaign strategy. And so this passage caught my eye:

The prohibition of pre-election campaigning, restrictions on the distribution of written materials and on the use of the mass media, and other seemingly minor things such as the prohibition of the use of convertibles or other open cars work their greatest hardship against the new and unknown candidate. The incumbent, who receives constant publicity in his constituency through his activities in the Diet, has all to gain by maintaining a law that effectively prevents new candidates from gaining public exposure. It is for this reason that efforts to substantially revise the Election Law have been doomed. Once a man becomes a member of the Diet he has all to gain by maintaining and extending the restrictions on campaign practices.

The Law has another important and deplorable effect. It makes the general voter a mere observer of the campaign. By effectively preventing popular participation in campaigns it inhibits if not actually works counter to the political socialization of the electorate that should be a major function of election campaigns. The Election Law’s ideal campaign is much like a beauty contest. When the official begins the contestants, supposedly having had no pre-contest opportunity influencing the judges, walk out on the stage and go through a rigorously supervised series of performances that gives each an exactly equal opportunity to demonstrate his attributes to the judges. They then all leave the stage for the judges to make their decision. The voters are in the position of passive judges. They can read posters and listen to speeches but can take almost no direct part in the contest. Not only does this make an election campaign unbearably dull for the average voter. It makes a fundamental function of systems of representative government frightening to the politically concerned electorate because of the fear that efforts in support of a candidate may result in a violation of the Election Law.

In the time since Curtis wrote this, Japan has become the world’s number two economy, inspiring fear in the US, and seen its bubble burst, the LDP briefly driven from power, the economy dip into crisis in the late 1990s, and the Koizumi revolution come and go — and still the restrictions on campaigning exist. Whatever tinkering with the details of the law, the pattern of Japanese campaigning remains largely unchanged, critically undermining the role elections ought to play in relations between government and governed.

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