Media  Global Economy  2021.11.16

Should we maintain the single-seat district system for House of Representatives elections?

There are several challenges to consider, such as giving precedence to hereditary succession and the decreasing number of policy-savvy legislators.

The article was originally posted on RONZA on October 23, 2021

Twenty-five years have passed since the single-seat district system was introduced with the primary objectives of stamping out money politics and realizing a two-party system. Some of these goals have been achieved and some have not. Meanwhile, some new problems have been caused by the system. In this paper, I would like to re-examine the advantages and disadvantages of the single-seat district system, although it is not an issue in the upcoming House of Representatives election.

Why was the single-seat district system introduced?

The event that led to the introduction of the single-seat district system was the Recruit scandal, which was exposed by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in 1988 and eventually brought down the government of Noboru Takeshita. Money politics was seen as a problem. Among other things, the electoral system at that time was blamed as a major cause of the problem of big money in politics.

The multiple-seat district system at that time was to elect three to five Diet members from a wider electoral district. For example, Okayama Prefecture, now consisting of five single-seat districts, was divided into two multiple-seat districts. Each of the former Okayama’s First District and Second District elected five members, of which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) usually secured three seats. However, in some elections, the LDP lost a seat, holding only two seats. If the LDP lawmakers believed that the Socialist Party of Japan (SPJ), the Democratic Socialist Party, and the Komeito had a fixed base of support, the election would effectively become a race in which the three LDP candidates would compete for the conservative votes. The LDP did not officially endorse any other members. This meant that the LDP candidates would be contesting with each other for two or three seats. Even if the opposition candidates did not get many votes, an LDP candidate might lose the election if the other LDP candidates got too many votes.

In the former Okayama’s Second District, in particular, a fierce election battle known as the “Rokuryu War” took place between Mutsuki Kato and Ryutaro Hashimoto. For the two LDP members, it was not just a question whether they would win or lose, but also which of them would be able to improve his standing within the LDP by receiving the most votes. Likewise, the battle between Takeo Fukuda and Yasuhiro Nakasone, the two faction leaders, in the former Gunma’s Third District was called the Joshu War. Similar battles were seen in a number of districts.

The head of each faction of the LDP who wants to be the prime minister will have an advantage in the party leadership election, even if the LDP as a whole is defeated in the general election, as long as a candidate from his faction wins and one from the other loses. Under the multiple-seat district system, it was not a race between candidates from the LDP and those from other parties, but a race within the LDP. This gave rise to intense money politics centered on factions. In order for the faction head to have “numbers” of Diet members on his side, “money” was necessary. A typical example was the Thursday Club (Tanaka Faction) led by Kakuei Tanaka. Power lay in numbers.

There was also criticism that because even if having failed to gain a lot of voter support a candidate could win the election with only about 20% of the votes, he/she tended to give priority to securing the fixed votes of a few local interest groups; and in return for their support, the members of the LDP, the party in power, would attempt to dispense special favors to the local community. It was said that the electoral system favored vested interests.

It was hoped that in contrast, a single-seat district system would prevent LDP candidates from competing with each other; realize an election centered not on faction but on policy and party; and put an end to money politics. Furthermore, since a candidate would be required to get nearly half of the votes to be elected, he/she would need support not only from specific interest groups but also from unorganized voters. For this reason, it was expected that the interests of the citizens as a whole would outweigh that of specific interest groups.

Another argument was that it would make it easier for those who had grown tired of the LDP’s long-term grip on power to achieve a regime change. In those days, however, people just seemed to have a strong desire to put an end to the money politics that had continued from the Lockheed bribery affair and the battle between Takeo Miki, Kakuei Tanaka, Masayoshi Ohira, Takeo Fukuda and Yasuhiro Nakasone (the faction leaders collectively referred to as “Sankakudaifukuchu”) in the 1970s to the Recruit scandal.

Yohei Kono and others regret the introduction of the single-seat district system

As a result, political reform that included electoral reform became the biggest political issue in the early 1990s. This caused a serious inner conflict within the LDP, with some members leaving the party. After the turmoil, the LDP was kicked out of the governing power in 1993, and a coalition government was formed with Morihiro Hosokawa of the Japan New Party as the prime minister.

Yohei Kono, a former member of the House of Representatives, who, as president of the opposition LDP, introduced the single-seat district system at a top-level meeting with Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa leading the coalition government, said in 2015, 20 years after the introduction, “One of the reasons for the transformation of the LDP is the problem pertaining to the single-seat district system. Although I engaged in the introduction of the system myself, I continue to feel, with a sense of atonement, that it was wrong.” Yohei Kono is not the only person who regrets the introduction of the system. One leading lawmaker expressed his honest opinion to me, “I even left the LDP once because I thought the single-seat district system was good, but now I wonder if it really was good.”

Kahoku Shimpo’s excellent articles featuring the single-seat district system

Ahead of the upcoming House of Representatives election, the local newspaper called Kahoku Shimpo in Miyagi Prefecture interviewed five politicians, including former LDP cabinet ministers, who had run in House of Representatives elections in Tohoku since the days when the multiple-seat district system was in place. The Kahoku Shimpo says that their comments were conveying a sense of crisis about the current situation and very thought-provoking, as seen below.

Interviewees pointed out the decline in the quality of politicians: “More and more members of the Diet are relying on the popularity of their party’s top leaders,” and “Competent politicians are not being nurtured owing to the lack of opportunities for opinion exchange and friendly rivalry.” They also expressed regret: “The reform was a huge failure. Political dynamism has declined.” (Kahoku Shimpo editorial, September 27, 2021)

I would like to quote some helpful comments from the Kahoku Shimpo interview articles with the five politicians, some of whom I know. I wish they had provided those comments earlier, but that being said, the Kahoku Shimpo’s feature articles are superb.

Tokuichiro Tamazawa, who served as Minister of Defense and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), says that under the current single-seat district system, candidates hardly study policy, except those who are very serious. This is because the support of unaffiliated voters depends on which way the “wind” is blowing. (“We need to review party subsidies,” August 24)

Acknowledging the problems of politics and money that the multiple-seat district system had entailed, and appreciating the fact that the single-seat district system has made a significant contribution to addressing these problems, Kazuo Aichi, who served as Director General of the Environment Agency and Director General of the Defense Agency, pointed out a new problem: “Without the backing of the party’s official approval, it is difficult to even run for an election,” and stated as follows:

“The process leading to the party’s approval is not clear. In order to avoid criticism, an open recruitment approach has been adopted, but this has not been effective. Since the party headquarters holds all the power of both the right to approve candidates and distribution of campaign funds, no one can speak out within the party. The right of approval has become a threat, so to speak, and the candidates are forced to listen to what the party headquarters says. This has caused politicians’ caliber to deteriorate. Individual lawmakers have become devoid of personality.” (“Politicians’ caliber has deteriorated,” August 27)

Kazuo Aichi even goes so far as to say that the single-seat district system does not fit into Japanese society, and if possible, we should return to the multiple-seat district system. He proposes, if this is impossible, to introduce primary elections like those in the U.S. in a bid to recruit a wide range of human resources. This is an important proposal, as I will explain later.

Hiroyuki Arai, who served as a member of both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors, mentioned the issue of subsidies to political parties.

“Under the single-seat district system, the party distributes party subsidies, and thus the party’s representatives and secretary-general tend to seize power. Consequently, it becomes difficult for a candidate to oppose them even if he/she disagrees with them, because he/she might not get official approval or a post if he/she displeases them. Thanks to this practice, Shinzo Abe managed to stay in power longer than any other prime minister.” (“Political reform ending up with just electoral reform,” August 27)

He even goes so far as to say that political parties and politicians will deteriorate, because owing to the increase in the number of lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who have never run for elections under the multiple-seat district system, there is no more friendly competition among them.

“They do not have the experience of arguing with each other about policy. Once they obtain an official approval from the party, they can win the election backed by the power of the head of the party. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to nurture good politicians. The ‘XX Children’ are a good example.”

Recalling that under the multiple-seat district system, there was a close connection between legislators and voters in their districts, Deputy Head of Komeito Yoshihisa Inoue points out the problems pertaining to the single-seat district system as follows:

“Under the multiple-seat district system, some politicians fostered areas of specialization and were ‘able to stand on their own two feet.’ Under the single-seat district system, meanwhile, there is only one candidate from the party, and once he/she obtains official approval, the party automatically provides full support. Consequently, politicians have almost lost their motivation to stand on their own two feet.” (“Reform the system to reflect public opinion,” August 28)

Taking the above comments into consideration, I would like to evaluate the pros and cons of the single-seat district system.

The two-party system we aimed for but failed to achieve

A change of government occurred twice under the single-seat district system. However, a two-party system could not be realized. As I mentioned in my article “The COVID-19 pandemic, rice, and the election – The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan follows the path of the Socialist Party of Japan,” unless the LDP suffers a major political setback or splits, the one-and-a-half party system ( the number of Diet members of the leading opposition party is only half of that of the LDP)is expected to continue for some time to come, just like the 1955 system by the LDP and Japanese Socialist party.

To begin with, Japan’s political parties were not like two major parties that opposed each other on major points of view, like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the U.S. or the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in the U.K. The Republican Party in the U.S. has changed so much that it is now called the Trump Party, and both major parties advocate protectionism in trade policy. Nevertheless, there still exists a stark difference between the two parties in their policies on a number of issues such as big government or small government, whether to allow abortions, whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccines and face masks, to what extent to accept immigrants, and to what extent to promote public health insurance. There is such a difference in their beliefs and opinions that you can imagine up to a point the policies they are trying to promote just by hearing their names.

On the other hand, there is no such difference between the LDP and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP). This is probably because, unlike the U.S. and the U.K., there is (or is believed to be) little social division among the people based on race, class, etc., as captured in the phrase “100 million, all-middle-class society.” In addition, as evidenced by the criticism that the upcoming general election is a battle of pork barrels, the political parties are, without presenting a clear opposing policy, competing with each other with similar policies that differ only in degree and scale. In the case of agricultural policy, only calling for higher rice prices in response to the acreage reduction policy that maintains high rice prices at the expense of taxpayers, the opposition parties have never proposed a policy that would, for the sake of poor consumers, abolish acreage reduction, lower rice prices, and make direct payments to farmers.

There is a politician who has, advocating the need for regime change, launched a new party and then destroyed it soon after. I have no idea what kind of politics and policies he is aiming for through a change of government. The CDP and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) have consolidated candidates for the upcoming election. However, hearing that the CDP is not considering forming a coalition government with the JCP after the election, I doubt that the CDP is really serious about a change of government, but just trying to reduce the number of seats held by the LDP. As seen in the failure of the Democratic Party of Japan’s administration, it was not even possible from the beginning to try to achieve a two-party system and regime change only through the electoral system without proper political infrastructure or ground in place.

A two-party system has not yet been realized, and changes of government have taken place not through general elections but through the election of the president of the LDP. If this goes on, would it not result in a resurgence of the factional politics of the past under the one-and-a-half party system? It was said that with the rise in power of the party leadership under the single-seat district system, power of the factions would weaken. However, the factions may become active in order to secure key posts in the party leadership. In the recent LDP presidential election, the so-called 3As, namely Shinzo Abe, Akira Amari, and Taro Aso, took the helm of party leadership. By contrast, it is pitiful to see the decline of the faction headed by Toshihiro Nikai, who was pushed out of the secretary-general post.

The goal of overthrowing money politics has been attained up to a point. There have been no incidents like the Lockheed and Recruit scandals, where huge sums of money flowed to the heads of factions or individual politicians. As Kazuo Aichi says, this is the fruits of political reform. However, it appears that not only the shift to the single-seat district system, but also the effect of the party subsidies have contributed to the achievement.

Of course, this does not mean that elections and politics have become less expensive. Even recently, money scandals have occurred such as the Kawai couple’s bribery in the Hiroshima electoral constituency of the House of Councillors and the LDP’s provision of 150 million yen to the couple, and former House of Representatives lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto’s corruption case linked to a project to build integrated resorts (IRs), including casinos. According to the October 17 Nihon Keizai Shimbun, an analysis of the results of past House of Representatives elections which took place under the single-seat district system reveals that the more money a candidate pours into an election, the greater his/her chance of winning it. We cannot deny the possibility that money politics would happen again in a different form.

Politics depending on vested interests has not ended

Next, let me examine another claim that the single-seat district system is more advantageous because it may help create a government that listens to the opinions of the majority rather than a few interest groups.

As it turns out, no improvement has been made. This is because there are numerous issues in the election. Voters choose parties and candidates that have more policies that they find acceptable among the numerous issues.

For example, when it came to the question of whether or not to participate in the TPP negotiations, the majority of the public gave support to joining the TPP. However, the agricultural cooperatives launched a major protest campaign, accumulating nearly twelve million signatures against the TPP. In a single-seat district where two candidates are competing, the organized farmer votes, though small in number, can make a difference between winning and losing. The farmer votes have been declining. However, when the candidates are competing 50-50, even 2% of the organized agricultural cooperatives votes going to the other side will result in a 4% difference. The agricultural cooperatives may not have the power to make a candidate win, but they do have the power to make him/her lose. Candidates are so frightened of this that they only present policies in line with the agricultural cooperatives’ desires. In the 2012 House of Representatives election, where TPP participation was one of the main issues, both candidates from the two major parties pledged to oppose the TPP to gain support from farmers.

However, voters who did not have as much of a stake in the TPP as those in the agricultural sector and were thus for the TPP voted for a candidate who was against the TPP as long as they could agree with him/her on other issues. On issues in which the majority of voters are less interested, candidates will set up policies that are palatable to vested interests having a strong interest in said issues. The results of the 2012 House of Representatives election showed that most of the voters who voted for LDP members were in favor of the TPP, whereas most of the elected LDP members were against the TPP.

The majority of Japanese people want to see the price of rice, their staple food, go down. However, all political parties, regardless of whether the ruling or opposition party, have pledged to reduce acreage and keep the price of rice high through government intervention in the market for a small number of farmer votes which are organized by the agricultural cooperatives.

Even under the single-seat district system, certain policies tend to reflect the views of specific interest groups, rather than representing the views of the majority.

Public opinion less likely to be reflected

Vice Finance Minister Koji Yano has sparked controversy after he criticized policy proposals put forward by both ruling and opposition parties as pork barrel policies that take no heed of fiscal rehabilitation. Some politicians reacted sharply against his criticism, saying that it was an unauthorized act of an unelected public servant. But do elected politicians embody the will of the people?

In the first place, there are some issues, like a COVID-19-related issue currently debated, on which the judgment of the people was not sought in previous elections, and public opinion even on existing issues may change if the situation changes after the election. Moreover, the future generations who will be forced to pay the national debt cannot participate in the current election.

The idea that elected lawmakers reflect the will of the voters on many issues is the fiction of representative democracy. Even if we seek the judgment of the people on individual issues through public opinion polls and national referendums, the will of future generations cannot be reflected in the results.

There is another problem with the single-seat district system. Under the system, a first-place finisher can be elected with as little as 30% of the votes, and the remaining majority of votes are ignored. It was pointed out even before the introduction of the system that it would produce a large number of wasted votes.

The dominant party (mostly the LDP) has won 60% of the seats with less than half of the votes. While the single-seat district system has contributed to the stability of government, it appears to make a change of government that reflects the will of the voters less feasible.

Former lawmakers point out the deterioration of politicians

Most of the former lawmakers interviewed by the Kahoku Shimpo pointed out that the quality of politicians had declined. I agree with them. I think that no politician who won elections after the introduction of the single-seat district system is as powerful as Sankakudaifukuchu. As the former lawmakers pointed out, the number of politicians of small caliber has been on the rise. This may be the most harmful effect of the single-seat district system.

Under the multiple-seat district system, individual LDP members learned about policies and engaged in friendly competition. Although there was some criticism that they were influence-peddling politicians, Mutsuki Kato and Ryutaro Hashimoto in the former Okayama’s Second District studied the policies in depth as Diet members backing the intersts of transportation industry or doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, respectively.

Sadanori Yamanaka, former Minister of International Trade and Industry (MITI), from Kagoshima had expertise and wisdom at which even government officials were amazed. He fought in the former Kagoshima’s Third District against Susumu Nikaido, former LDP Vice President, who was a key member of the Tanaka faction. Yamanaka chaired the LDP Research Commission on the Tax System for many years and was called the “boss” of the party’s tax commission. Even bureaucrats from the Ministry of Finance, the MAFF, the MITI, and others were intimidated by his power (one MITI bureaucrat went so far as to say that he felt “wind pressure” from Yamanaka). The consumption tax could not have been introduced without him. As a politician, he also demonstrated a high level of integrity (which will be the subject of a later section of this paper).

When it comes to friendly rivalry, the politicians in the former Hokkaido’s Fifth District stand out in my memory. It was a five-seat district, in which the SPJ was traditionally strong, occupying two or three seats until the 1983 election. There, four LDP members, Naoto Kitamura, Muneo Suzuki, Tsutomu Takebe, and Shoichi Nakagawa, competed against each other. For the benefit of the dairy farmers in the district, they fought hard with the MAFF bureaucrats over dairy policy.

In contrast, the current LDP members can almost always win the election once they are officially approved by the party. In the next election, too, as the party has given approval to incumbent Diet members on a priority basis, there is no doubt that they will get elected. Individual politicians do not have to study or consider policies. The individual was important under the multiple-seat district system, whereas the party has become more important under the single-seat district system.

The current system gives precedence to hereditary succession

It is difficult for a newcomer to be officially approved by the party when the incumbent is given priority. However, in the case of hereditary candidates, as they take over constituencies from their family members who have been incumbents, there is a good chance of obtaining official approval from the party, even if they are newcomers. In addition, hereditary candidates inherit the three bans, namely, Jiban (local support base), Kanban (name recognition), and Kaban (funds), which further increases the likelihood or chances of their getting elected. “Only 10% of non-hereditary general candidates get elected in their first run, whereas the comparative rate for hereditary candidates reaches 60%” (Nihon Keizai Shimbun, October 17). Hereditary succession occurs not only because hereditary candidates themselves want to follow in the footsteps of their family members, but also because members of the supporters’ organizations demand it in order to maintain their own rights and interests in their constituencies. In this way, people who “have taken the trouble to be born and nothing more,” as Figaro the Barber of Seville said to his master, become politicians. Meanwhile, people without the three bans, like Mr. and Ms. Kawai, sometimes go so far as to cross the line to do so.

The current LDP is full of hereditary lawmakers. Like the feudal lords of the Edo period, the profession of politician is handed down through generations. It is true that some of them are competent politicians, but there must be people with higher aspirations and broader and deeper knowledge than the children of politicians. And yet, these people are not given a chance to contest a seat. If we have no other choice but to elect the children of politicians as our leaders, what will become of the future of Japan? Can we entrust negotiations with self-made and seasoned foreign leaders to incompetent hereditary lawmakers? Sadanori Yamanaka, mentioned above, was a “man of upstanding character.” He promised that no successor would come from the Yamanaka family. This baffled the LDP Kagoshima Prefectural Federation, which had taken hereditary succession for granted.

While the number of hereditary candidates increases in the LDP, non-hereditary candidates seek to run as opposition candidates. Although the opposition parties accordingly accept non-hereditary candidates, it does not mean that those whose principles and policies differ from those of the ruling party will become opposition candidates. The leading opposition party would end up becoming the second LDP.

To solve this problem, a primary election should be introduced to select endorsed candidates of the ruling and opposition parties, as Kazuo Aichi argues. Even an incumbent would not be officially approved if he/she loses support. If he/she finds that he/she could lose his/her seat by lounging around doing nothing, he/she would make a desperate effort to study policies. Even a non-hereditary candidate could become an official candidate in place of an incumbent if he/she was capable and popular.

Another solution is to ease restrictions on party discipline. American political parties do not exert party discipline over their members. Even members of the ruling party oppose a bill that the president wants to pass. Lobbying each member of Congress may be more active, but the members have a better understanding of the policy. In the U.K. which has the same parliamentary system as Japan, party discipline is less stringent than in Japan as seen in the vote on the Brexit bill, with the exception of the budget bill on which members of Parliament must vote along party lines.

The current members of the LDP vote in accordance with their party’s official position. If they were not bound by party discipline, they would have to explain to their constituencies their voting behavior in the Diet. Such an excuse as, “It is the party’s decision,” would not hold. They would be required to have the ability to explain themselves to persuade their supporters. This would lead to an improvement in the quality of legislators.

Lastly: we need to build public opinion to influence politics

We have found that the single-seat district system is not a rosy system. However, when I say that the system has deteriorated politicians’ caliber, it does not mean that the qualities and abilities of Japanese people have declined since the days of the strong faction leaders, Sankakudaifukuchu. The problem is that under the system, ordinary people have a lesser chance of becoming a politician, while lawmakers can get along without improving their qualities and abilities. I do not think that those who are officially approved by parties at present, including hereditary legislators, will stir demand for reform. I hope that public opinion will be formed to move politics towards reconsideration of the electoral system.