The heavy-handed tactics the ruling parties employed to railroad a controversial Upper House electoral reform bill have left an ugly blot on the nation’s parliamentary history. No substantial debate was conducted in the Diet. In the Upper House, the opposition parties boycotted discussion because of the coalition’s uncompromising stance; in the Lower House, controversies over Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s gaffes and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa’s suspected link with a gangster consumed the greater part of deliberative sessions.
It is not unusual that a hotly contested bill, and such an ideologically charged one, is rammed through the Diet on the strength of a majority. But an electoral bill is a different story. It differs from other measures in a critical sense: It involves the makeup of the Diet. As such, it should have been patiently and thoroughly debated by both sides.
The last time the Upper House voting system was changed, 18 years ago, the political parties conducted intensive debates for several months in both chambers. This time around, the bill was discussed for just four days in the Upper House — a mere 14 hours, if we include the time for hearings. It received much less attention in the Lower House. The blame for all this must be placed primarily on the ruling parties. No doubt historians will record the face-off as one of the most unfortunate events in the Diet’s history.
The governing triumvirate — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — bears responsibility for the imbroglio. Bolstered by a combined majority, they used heavy-handed tactics to achieve their unspoken objective — improving their chances in future Upper House elections. But their partisan handling of the bill could cost them many votes, contrary to their expectations. Indeed, the public’s distrust of politics is so deep that it is unrealistic to place too much hope in the new voting method.
The LDP failed to win a majority in the last three Lower House elections. Its share of the vote has continued to shrink from the 40 percent level in the 1980s to the 30 percent mark in the 1990s and to 20 percent in the proportional-representation section of the June election. In the previous two Upper House elections, the share remained at the 20 percent level in the PR constituency.
The decline in LDP support reflects, among other things, the structural reform that swept the Japanese economy in the 1990s. The collapse of the economic bubble and the progress of economic globalization have destroyed or weakened traditional allegiances between parties and voters. The interest groups that supported their political patrons in past elections are no longer as powerful. The cozy ties that once bound business, government and bureaucracy have all but disappeared.
In June’s Lower House election and, more recently, in a Tokyo by-election, the LDP lost a large number of votes, not only because of the swelling ranks of unaffiliated voters, but also because its vote-getting machine did not function as it once did. Addressing the problems that caused all this to happen, not remaking the electoral system, must be the first step for the LDP to win more votes. It seems that the party has forgotten, or ignored, the lessons of the last Upper House election.
In that election, held two years ago, the LDP fielded many more candidates than usual in multiple-seat prefectural districts in order to tap votes in the PR section of the poll. But that strategy backfired as many candidates went down to defeat together. As a result, the LDP suffered a crushing loss. The rout could have been avoided if the party had reduced the number of its candidates to secure wins in non-PR districts. This shows that voting in these districts holds the key to party victory. The same may be true of the coming election.
The LDP can put up popular candidates like TV personalities in the PR bloc. That may bring it several million more votes, but even if it gets that many extra votes, it will probably win just a few more seats. In other words, a major LDP victory is a mirage. Yet many Liberal Democrats in the Upper House seem to hanker for the “glory days” of the past.
The new polling system, which will be put into use in next summer’s Upper House election, allows voters to cast a ballot for either a party or a candidate in the PR constituency, instead of only a party, as is currently the case. Aside from the way in which the reform bill was enacted, however, the basic problem with the new polling system is that it lacks the understanding and support of the majority of voters. A great many of these voters have no party affiliations and are members of volunteer groups — disgruntled voters who are at the center of public cynicism toward politics.
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