LDP: fall of Japan’s political machine

by Jeff Kingston

THE RISE AND FALL OF JAPAN’S LDP: Political Party Organizations as Historical Institutions, by Ellis S. Krauss and Robert J. Pekkanen. Cornell University Press, 2011, 318 pp., $26.95 (paper)

Japanese politics is in a sad state these days with the media likening Diet debate to flatulence. Voters’ expectations soared when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a landslide victory over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August 2009, taking control over both houses of the Diet.

The DPJ, however, has disappointed ever since with fumbling leadership and lost control of the Upper House in July 2010.

Deadlock in the Diet courtesy of the LDP has disillusioned voters and means that Japan’s huge problems fester.

In this excellent book the authors examine the inner workings of the LDP since it was established in 1955, a critically important topic given its dominant role in Japanese politics until 2009. It is a fascinating analysis of the institutions within the LDP and how they evolved over time.

The key distinguishing institutions of the LDP have been the koenkai (support organizations), factions, the Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC) and party leadership. By examining each in historical context, Krauss and Pekkanen help explain why the LDP remained dominant for so long and why institutional change remains elusive. In doing so they have written the go to book on understanding what makes Japanese politics tick and how its election system works.

The authors analyze the electoral reform implemented in 1994 and the limited consequences for the LDP. Pundits predicted that these institutions would vanish because of the electoral reforms, but understanding why they did not wither away is illuminating. The authors take a “historical institutionalist” approach to look at the origins of party institutions, the incentives/disincentives that shape them and how they interact and reinforce each other. They make a convincing and interesting argument about how party institutions played a significant role in limiting the impact of the reform.

The institutional adjustments varied, but electoral reform has had a limited impact because politicians and parties respond to a range of other interrelated incentives and needs. They argue that “Electoral systems provide the rules under which political actors play the game of politics, but they do not alone or invariably determine the specific outcomes of the game, why and how the actors play that game, or how well they play it.”

Moreover, the key role of institutional complementarities within the LDP explains much of the persistence.

Koenkai served as personal political machines and “were the main grassroots vote-mobilizing organization.” Factions were groups within the party based on reciprocal exchanges between party elders and other party members, including doling out important posts in the party and government. PARC was the main policymaking body within the party and thus the government. These three institutions were mutually reinforcing and “essentially undermined the ability of the party president and prime minister to lead effectively.” Crucially, “the prime minister had a minimal role in party vote-seeking, office-seeking, and policy-seeking functions.” Becoming prime minister depended mostly on “the talents to make back-room bargains, raise money, and longevity.”

Electoral reform in 1994, explained in detail here, responded to popular dissatisfaction with politics and voting disparities that enabled the LDP to remain in power “even though it had not obtained a majority of the popular vote since 1967.”

By detailing how these institutions arose and evolved over time, the authors explain the historical dynamics, negative externalities and complementary institutions that mediated and shaped the reform process.

For example, the persistence of strict limits on campaigning after the 1994 electoral reform ensured politicians continued to rely on koenkai to mobilize the vote, explaining “why they were not whisked into the dustbin of history.”

Factions remained robust because they continued to control the distribution of posts in PARC and the party, offering significant incentives to join while PARC remained pivotal in policymaking.

The changes affecting LDP institutions over the past decade owe little to the 1994 reform. The authors find that the main complementary institution for factions was determining party leadership, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi cut that Gordian knot in 2001 when he defied the factions and won the party presidency. And now that the LDP has been ousted from power, factions no longer can dangle the inducements of plum posts and influence and PARC no longer makes government policy.

The authors attribute the LDP’s downfall to “the very institutions that drove the LDP electoral success.” Institutional inertia and limited adaptation meant the LDP did not respond effectively to “a more competitive party system, a changed role for the media, and transformed voter appetites.”

They predict that because “the LDP has tasted defeat, we expect the party to find a new appetite for organizational change.”

One can only hope that the LDP also discovers an appetite for substantive discussion on what policies would best serve the national interest.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.