Older lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party may be feeling particularly jittery as speculation of an early dissolution of the Lower House for a snap election circulates in Nagata-cho.
As part of efforts to rejuvenate its ranks, the LDP is mulling the introduction of a system requiring its House of Representatives members elected on the party’s proportional representation ticket to retire if they are 73 by the next general election.
While the current four-year term of Lower House members runs through June 2004, it is widely believed that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose term as LDP president expires in September, will dissolve the chamber sometime this year.
If introduced as scheduled, the mandatory retirement system would weed out such big names as former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone, 84, and Kiichi Miyazawa, 83.
Proponents of the system argue that the presence of elderly lawmakers limits opportunities for younger candidates, and as a result the LDP is losing a number of prospective young politicians with fresh ideas and ambitions.
“The LDP is in a serious situation, in which those aiming to become politicians cannot run easily on the LDP ticket,” said Yoshimi Watanabe, 50, a LDP Lower House member. “In this regard, we are suffering a heavy loss.”
The planned age cap would be in line with a similar LDP rule that limits eligibility to those aged 70 or younger to run for a proportional representation seat in the House of Councilors.
Because the Upper House has a set six-year term, a 70-year-old candidate at the time of an election can serve until age 76.
In the interest of keeping a balance, the planned rule for the Lower House subtracts three from 76 because the term of a Lower House member often ends in about three years due to occasional dissolutions of the chamber.
Of the 242 LDP members in the Lower House, which include lawmakers elected from single-seat and proportional representation constituencies, the number of those aged 73 or older stands at 33, or 13.7 percent of the total.
Watanabe stressed that elderly lawmakers who have served as prime minister should leave the Diet immediately after stepping down as the nation’s leader, even if they have not yet turned 73.
There are currently four former prime ministers in the Diet from the LDP: Nakasone, Miyazawa, Ryutaro Hashimoto and Yoshiro Mori.
“Those veterans should play an advisory role outside the Diet instead of clinging to parliamentary seats,” Watanabe said. “That way, they will be able to make better judgments and give better advice on policies, because it is difficult to be (an LDP) lawmaker without being influenced by factional politics.”
Of the 33 seniors, however, the age cap would apply to only 12 who were elected through proportional representation, including Miyazawa and Nakasone. The remaining 21 were elected from single-seat constituencies and are thus exempt from any eligibility restrictions.
According to political commentator Minoru Morita, such a lack of uniform rules would make the planned mandatory retirement system difficult to understand, and the LDP may fail to send a clear message to the public that it is striving to rejuvenate itself.
“Under the cover of a complicated electoral system, it is more likely that the veterans will create yet another loophole,” Morita said. “This is how the LDP veterans have managed to cling to power.”
In the last general election, in June 2000, the LDP put former prime ministers running on the proportional representation ticket on the top of the candidate rosters for regional blocs, thereby ensuring they retained their Diet seats.
Opponents to the retirement rule emphasize that veteran lawmakers can demonstrate their competence by remaining in office, rather than becoming outside advisers.
“I believe exceptions would be possible for those who have experience, the ability to make good judgments and are in good health,” said Executive Council Chairman Mitsuo Horiuchi, head of an LDP faction to which Miyazawa belongs.
Horiuchi himself turned 73 on Wednesday, but he would not be affected by the planned rule because he is elected from the Yamanashi No. 2 single-seat constituency.
The Horiuchi faction has decided to call for exempting Miyazawa and Nakasone from the rule.
Given the intensifying tug of war, LDP faction representatives managed to only reach a tenuous consensus in late October on strict implementation of the age limit.
“We should ensure (full-scale enforcement of the age limit) some time in the future,” LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki told a news conference in late November. “But whether the age of 73 is appropriate or not may be discussed further.”
The ongoing call for the age limit has another objective that may be more pressing to the LDP than its rejuvenation efforts — the need to create “safety nets” for candidates who are currently elected from single-seat districts but may have to run on the proportional representation ticket as a result of the recent nationwide redistricting.
The Diet passed a bill in July aimed at reducing the imbalances in the value of votes between populous and less-populous constituencies of the Lower House.
It will create five new single-seat constituencies, in Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama, Shiga and Okinawa prefectures, while reducing five, in Hokkaido, Yamagata, Shizuoka, Shimane and Oita prefectures.
Miyazawa and former Finance Minister Yoshiro Hayashi, 75, are among candidates who were elected from the proportional representation segment for the Chugoku region, which comprises five prefectures, including Shimane. Competition may intensify among LDP candidates to win high positions on the candidate roster for the region.
Because the issue of mandatory retirement surfaces every time an election approaches, the LDP’s rejuvenation slogan has already disillusioned many voters, especially younger ones, argued Waseda University professor Aiji Tanaka, an expert on voter behavior.
“The LDP has traditionally targeted voters aged 75 and over, so the party believes that cutting off veteran lawmakers who belong to that generation could lead to losing votes,” Tanaka said.
However, he pointed out that statistics show voters in their 60s comprise the largest age group among solid LDP supporters, accounting for 25.4 percent of the total.
This is followed by people in their 50s, accounting for 23.3 percent, and those in their 70s, at 17.8 percent.
LDP supporters in their 20s make up a mere 7.4 percent of the total, while those in their 30s account for 11.9 percent, according to Tanaka.
In this sense, there is no logic in opposing the mandatory retirement, he said, adding the LDP’s reluctance to introduce such a rule has already had adverse effects on voter behavior — low turnouts at elections.
“I believe the only way for the party to regain public trust is to demonstrate that it has the ability to properly manage the nation,” Tanaka said. “It is questionable whether 75-year-olds can do this. The party’s rejuvenation is vital.”
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