What does Prime Minister Taro Aso have in common with predecessors Yasuo Fukuda, Shinzo Abe, Junichiro Koizumi and Yoshiro Mori, and others who came before them?
They are all political blue bloods whose fathers, grandfathers or other close relatives were political notables, some prime ministers. This trend is especially conspicuous in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Such aristocracy is all too common in Nagata-cho, the nation’s political hub.
Koizumi, a third-generation lawmaker and one of the most popular prime ministers in recent years, has no plans to run in the next election and has already effectively passed his baton onto his son, Shinjiro, who will be expected to “inherit” his Kanagawa Prefecture electoral district.
The abrupt resignations of Abe and Fukuda after each only served a year in office triggered the public to label such political gentry as spoiled and gutless.
With a general election expected to be called by fall, junior lawmakers are now looking to upset the hereditary pattern of candidates who are related to current, retiring or past politicians from automatically assuming a spot on the ballot.
Ichita Yamamoto, an Upper House LDP member, suggested candidates should not be allowed to run in the same electoral district as a parent or other close kin, or at the least, only run twice in the same district.
“Regulating the candidacy of politicians’ (relatives) does not mean that if someone is born into a political family, that person can’t become a politician. That would go against the (freedom of career choice under the) Constitution,” Yamamoto recently wrote in his blog, but added that some limits are needed so a politician’s next of kin doesn’t automatically inherit a family electoral district.
According to Nikkei Shimbun research after the 2005 general election, 112 LDP Lower House members, or 37.8 percent of the chamber, have or had direct blood kin in politics. Out of the 17 ministers in Aso’s Cabinet, 11 fall in that category.
The debate heated up after Yoshihide Suga, LDP deputy chief on election campaigns, suggested the party, to ease public criticism, include on its platform for the next general election some kind of limits on candidates with hereditary connections to politicians.
Suga, who is expected to be part of the team that drafts the LDP’s poll platform, has said the party needs to demonstrate a determination to pursue unpleasant internal reforms.
Many LDP veterans, however, do not welcome Suga’s proposal. They argue that curbing the candidacies of political blue bloods would violate the freedom of career choice guaranteed under the Constitution.
Because many veteran lawmakers effectively inherited their constituencies — that is to say the political support and vote-soliciting machines of their next of kin — they fear being restricted on where they could run could prevent them from being elected.
Aso has also been cool to the notion of restricting the eligibility of an election candidate.
Critics say politicians who inherit an electoral district from a relative have a great advantage over their opponents.
“Those candidates who inherit electoral districts from family members are already well-known in the districts and have the necessary infrastructure for the campaign, including support groups and political funds,” Yasuhiro Tase, a political science professor at Waseda University, said as a guest speaker at an LDP political reform team meeting Thursday.
The political reform team of the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, said Thursday it wants to submit a bill during the current Diet session to limit hereditary candidates.
The DPJ wants to ban politicians and candidates from inheriting the electoral districts of relatives, defining heredity as first- to third-degree kinship. The party has not specified when such a ban would be imposed.
“If we can’t do it (in the current Diet session), we will proudly include this in the (election platform),” DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama told reporters Friday, adding that if the party beats the LDP in the next election and takes control of the government, “we will do it immediately.”
The DPJ has 20 hereditary Lower House members, accounting 17.7 percent of the Lower House members, according to Nikkei Shimbun’s research. They include DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, himself a former LDP member whose father once was as well.
Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Kunio Hatoyama, whose grandfather is the late Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama and whose older brother, Yukio, is a key DPJ figure, criticized the DPJ plan, calling it “mediocre.”
Hatoyama told reporters it is unfair to allow already-elected hereditary politicians to stay in office but close the gate on future candidates.
Nonetheless, the DPJ’s move is pressuring LDP members to address the heredity issue.
LDP Lower House member Masahiko Shibayama suggested there is a reluctance among party executives to raise the issue of a ban, because that would provide the opposition camp with an advantage.
But he meanwhile said the issue should be thoroughly discussed because it could provide an opportunity to prove many hereditary politicians are, in fact, potent.
“Prime Ministers (Abe and Fukuda) did not quit because they were weak. It was just the magic of media surveys” that pressured them to quit.