Japanese go to the polls June 25 in the nation’s second general election that combines single-seat constituencies and proportional representation.
For the election, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is using the same strategies that it employed in past elections that were based on multiseat constituencies. These include the use of industry groups to establish voter bases for individual lawmakers and the replacement of retiring politicians with their sons and daughters in their home constituencies. We must give serious consideration to why the 70-year-old multiseat constituency system was replaced with the present arrangement that gives a precedence to single-seat constituencies.
Under the proportional representation system, of which the multiseat system is a variation, the ruling party is rarely overthrown by the opposition. In Japan as well as in Italy, the No. 1 party has often formed a ruling coalition with other parties after losing a parliamentary majority. Long rule by the same party, sometimes with allies, tends to lead to corruption.
In Japan, pork-barrel politics, based on the use of tax money for private and political advantage, is common. Financial Reconstruction Minister Michio Ochi was forced to resign in February after suggesting that smaller financial institutions would be given lenient treatment in bank inspections. The resignation followed severe criticism of his comments, made at a time when the government was poised to implement bold financial reforms.
The biggest challenge for the Japanese political world is to promote economic deregulation. The government has tightly controlled the financial sector and supervised all industries. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly once remarked that among the world’s nations, Japan enjoyed the most success with socialism. Now, Japan is required to implement reforms to become a genuinely capitalist system.
As Japan gears up to implement reforms, there are moves in the LDP to reconsider economic deregulation. These moves have accelerated since Shizuka Kamei took over as LDP policy chief. Kamei’s comments show that he is a typical old-fashioned LDP lawmaker and relies on traditional vote-gathering methods based on industry groups. His position is that economic deregulation should be called off because it is hurting pro-LDP industries and merchants.
Kamei, an inveterate conservative, has always sought to protect the interests of manufacturers and other businesses; he fails to understand that the public has greatly benefited from deregulation. Kamei says that large supermarkets have taken business away from neighborhood rice dealers and liquor shops. “People used to live in friendly communities, but competition, stemming from deregulation, eliminated that culture,” he said. In the “good old days” before deregulation, however, we had to pay exorbitant prices for consumer goods. We still live in a country where consumer prices are the highest in the world.
LDP lawmakers often promise to do any and everything possible to protect the interests of their supporters. This tendency got Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori into hot water when he said Japan is “a nation of gods with the Emperor at its center.” I believe that like many other LDP politicians, Mori was trying to curry favor with his supporters when he made the remark before the Shinto Seiji Renmei, a pro-LDP Shinto-affiliated political group.
Mori told the group that Japan is “a nation of gods with the Emperor at its center” and that the Japanese public should firmly embrace the idea. There was no doubt that he supported a Shinto-based Japanese empire, but he denied before the Diet and at a news conference that he had any such idea in making the remark.
He apparently tried to offer lip service to his supporters, as if he was promising the use of government appropriations for the benefit of his constituents. Mori appears to have habit of making easy promises to his supporters.
Meanwhile, a number of older lawmakers have announced their retirement, creating the impression that generational changes are taking place in the political world. However, all the retiring politicians are being replaced by their sons, daughters and close relatives, a problem that has continued since the multiseat years. No doubt, relatives of retiring politicians are the most suitable to protect the interests of their supporters’ groups. Under the new voting system, aspiring successors to retiring politicians would have difficulty in getting elected with the most votes, although they could collect the second or third most votes.
Most opinion polls indicate that 45 to 50 percent of the voters are unaffiliated with any political party. While they do not depend on parties to protect their interests, they are not uninterested in Japan’s future. They do not easily accept election pledges made by the ruling parties.
The three ruling parties — the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — have announced a plan to create 500,000 jobs. This is a repeat of an election pledge made for the previous election and a throwback to the old days when Japan was working hard to increase production and develop industries. But the government and the Diet have no power to create jobs.
Employment will increase only when the economy recovers and new industries grow. Toward that end, national reforms are essential. The LDP, which seeks to protect vested interests, is unlikely to rise to the challenge of implementing major reforms.
The Democratic Party of Japan, the top opposition party, should appeal to the public on the need for dynamic national reform. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama recently proposed a scheme for decentralizing power within five years by dividing the nation into several regions for increased local autonomy. This proposal is the most suitable for breaking the bureaucratic stalemate.
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