The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has begun talking about changing the way it chooses the party leader.
The history of LDP leadership elections is littered with dark episodes of bare-knuckle political battles for power.
Through political wheeling and dealing by faction bosses and party bigwigs, all sorts of revisions have been made to the party’s rules for the leadership election.
This time, the party is weighing whether to extend the term of the party chief, now restricted to two consecutive three-year terms.
LDP executives have proposed allowing up to three consecutive three-year terms. Some party members are even arguing for the abolition of a limit.
The party says the new rules will be applied not just to the current president, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but to his successors as well.
For the time being, however, the proposed term extension is aimed at allowing Abe to remain in power beyond his second term, which expires in two years.
Proponents of the idea argue that a leader who remains in power for a long time has more chance of building strong relations with foreign leaders. They also maintain that a longer term is also good from the viewpoint of political stability.
But there are also legitimate concerns that a leader’s prolonged grip on power could breed rigidity and corruption.
When Japan had an electoral system based on multiple-seat constituencies, the LDP held the reins of government for decades in a row. But the system is now based on single-seat constituencies combined with proportional representation, which has made it easier for power to change hands.
Under the current system, the prime minister is effectively elected directly by voters through Lower House polls in which the governing party is chosen.
Given this situation, there is no strong case for opposing an extension of the LDP head’s term per se.
But there is one issue that should not be missing from the LDP’s debate on this question.
It is the fact that the term of the LDP president carries more political weight than the prime minister’s term.
This situation is a legacy from the era of multiple-seat constituencies when voters had much less influence over the selection of the nation’s leader.
Factions within the LDP used to battle for the post of the prime minister through party leadership elections. This system had the effect of determining the term of the prime minister through a kind of “quasi power transfer.”
But the relationship between voters and the prime minister has since changed significantly.
Under the single-seat constituency system, the prime minister gains the leadership role by winning a public mandate in a Lower House election to carry out the party’s campaign platform during the four-year term of the chamber’s members.
Changing the ruling party’s leader, which automatically replaces the prime minister, during the four years through a party leadership election, runs counter to the decision by voters to give the party chief a mandate to govern the nation.
From the viewpoint that a prime minister should serve for the four years, then his or her power to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election at any time should also be reviewed.
The current situation tends to keep lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition camps perennially restless due to chronic anxiety about when the next national election will be called. This is detrimental to the nation’s political health.
Japan’s parliamentary Cabinet system is modeled on the one in Britain, which enacted a law in 2011 to make it almost impossible to dissolve the House of Commons (Lower House) unless a vote of non-confidence against the Cabinet is passed.
The law is designed to prevent the prime minister from calling snap elections purely for political gains and ensure that the leader devotes his or her energy to efforts to push through the party’s political agenda.
Changes in the rules for choosing the leader of one of the two main parties will inevitably affect the way the prime minister is chosen.
We urge the LDP to address these issues as well for the sake of greater political maturity and stability in Japan.