This phrase has long been shorthand for the LDP’s half-century of nearly uninterrupted rule, despite corruption and high levels of unpopularity among the Japanese people (although of late there might be some convergence between economics and politics).
Japanese and non-Japanese scholars have concocted numerous explanations for the LDP’s enduring hold on power. Some have suggested a cultural basis for Japan’s “one-party democracy”: the Japanese people are unwilling to vote for any party other than the familiar LDP. Others have pointed to the now-retired single, non-transferable vote/medium-sized district electoral system, although the LDP’s endurance under the new system has surely weakened this hypothesis. Others have argued that the incompetence of opposition parties over the past fifty years is the most important explanation for LDP rule. Still others have dismissed the importance of politics altogether, viewing LDP politicians as little more than bagmen for the all-powerful bureaucracy.
In Democracy Without Competition in Japan: Opposition Failure in a One-Party Dominant State, Ethan Scheiner, a political science professor at the University of California, Davis, has developed a sophisticated argument on the failure of the political opposition to take power that demolishes these well-worn arguments.
The core of his argument is clientelism: the combination of clientelistic relationships between voters and politicians and Japan’s fiscally centralized state that makes localities and prefectures clients of Tokyo has provided a solid foundation for LDP rule. For Professor Scheiner, opposition failure is not simply a matter of the failure of opposition parties to form national governments. Opposition failure begins at the local level. As a result of the clientelistic, fiscally centralized state, the quality most desired in local and prefectural elected officials has been connections to the national government that enable them to secure more subsidies from Tokyo for local projects. Not surprisingly, local LDP members with links to LDP Diet members have done particularly well in prefectural assembly elections, to the point that in the 2007 unified local elections, the LDP lost ninety-seven prefectural assembly seats nationwide and still held 1212 seats (to the DPJ’s 375). Local opposition failure has contributed to national-level opposition failure by depriving opposition parties of “quality” candidates — meaning candidates who have been previously elected to public office and are therefore more trusted by voters — in HR races under both the old MMD and new SMD electoral systems.
Ah, you say, but what about wealthy, densely populated prefectures that are less dependent on Tokyo? Professor Scheiner grants that not all prefectures are equally prone to clientelism, and introduces the concept of parallel party systems. One party system, he argues, is quite competitive. In the approximately 200 urban and mixed SMDs and in PR voting in these areas, the DPJ has been fairly successful. Voters in these areas are response to anti-clientelistic appeals, explaining why the DPJ and Koizumite LDP candidates have had considerable success in urban Japan in recent years. The problem is in the rural SMDs that constitute approximately a third of the HR’s 300 SMDs. Not surprisingly, support for clientelism remains high, and in these areas voters continue to elect LDP candidates at both the local and national levels. In fact, of 99 mostly rural SMDs, the LDP took 75 in 1996 and 77 in 2000 and 2003. One-party democracy exists in Japan, but not everywhere. However, on the back of its dominance of rural Japan, the LDP has been able to cling to power. As Professor Scheiner wrote, “Despite the fact that rural SMDs constitute only about 20 percent of all seats, rural SMD victories provide the LDP with nearly one third of all the seats it needs to win a majority. To win a majority, the LDP needs to take only around 40 percent of the remaining seats.”
Professor Scheiner’s thesis points at the way forward and illuminates some of the recent trends seen in Japanese politics. It explains why Mr. Koizumi’s attacks on vehicles of clientelism were so vociferously opposed within the LDP, and why Mr. Koizumi may yet have succeeded in destroying the LDP as promised. It explains why the DPJ is attracted to decentralization (see this post by Jun Okumura), and why the LDP is becoming increasingly uneasy about the “nonpartisan” Sentaku movement that is pushing hard for decentralization. It also explains why Ozawa Ichiro has been spending his time touring the country, and why he has been so heavily involved in selecting candidates. Perhaps Mr. Ozawa learned from his experiences in the early 1990s, when he tried to take power by forming parties with inverted-pyramid structures: unseating the LDP will require political change at the local level in order to build up a stable of quality candidates for national elections.
I saw this dynamic at work in Kanagawa-4. The HC member for whom I worked is also the DPJ’s presumptive HR candidate, making him a “quality” candidate according to Professor Scheiner’s definition. His staff campaigned hard and successfully for DPJ candidates in local and prefectural candidates. Once elected, the newly elected officials began working more or less full time on behalf of my boss to bolster his support in the district.
Many expected that electoral reform, once implemented, would yield immediate regime change. Clearly that wasn’t the case. But the combination of shrinking budgets, the Koizumi reforms, more effective campaigning on the part of the DPJ, and an LDP increasingly at war with itself over how to preserve the party’s dominance of the rural third while remaining competitive in the other two-thirds of the country suggest that regime change is on the way. The DPJ’s impressive showings in last year’s local and HC elections may have been important portents of things to come.