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Editorial: 30 yrs on from political reforms, Japan must now return to the start point

  • April 26, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Thirty years have passed since Japan began its political system reform efforts.

“Japanese politics is standing at a major crossroads. The public’s distrust in politics has peaked following the Recruit scandal, and we face a serious situation never before seen in the history of Japanese parliamentary politics,” says a political reform outline released by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in May 1989, the first year of the current Heisei era.

Public anger at the intertwining of politics and money boiled over following the Recruit influence-peddling scandal that had surfaced the previous year.

The fury prompted the LDP to seek to replace the multi-seat constituency system in the House of Representatives with one combining single-seat districts with proportional representation blocs.

The reform was designed to shake up the status quo, in which the LDP’s intraparty factions controlled political funding and candidate selection, and competed with one another to fill their coffers and set policy pledges during elections. However, the new single-seat electoral structure was also assumed to make power shifts more plausible, raising expectations for added tension in the political system.

The LDP’s 1989 political reform outline states that the reform of the election system “would bring pain” to the party. What is notable is that the LDP, which had been in government for decades, pointed to the need for a transfer of power.

The party feared that Japan could not survive under the so-called 1955 system, under which the LDP was constantly in power, as the world was undergoing drastic changes such as the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November that year. At the time, there were calls within the business community, which had supported the LDP, for the establishment of another political party that could take over the reins of government.

The LDP was subsequently split over the introduction of the single-seat electoral system, and a package of bills on political reform was only passed into law in 1994 after a fierce power struggle. Japan finally achieved a transfer of power when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the 2009 general election. However, the DPJ-led government collapsed in late 2012, ushering in a new era of LDP dominance under the second premiership of party leader Shinzo Abe.

Japan’s parliamentary politics faces crisis again.

Critics have pointed out problems involving the single-seat electoral system.

They say the quality of individual politicians has deteriorated because too much emphasis has been placed on party-oriented politics, and there is no longer any active debate within the LDP.

However, the political reform’s original goal of establishing a system facilitating a transfer of power between political parties was not wrong.

The biggest cause of Abe’s predominance is opposition parties’ failure to garner voter support. The DPJ-led administration was torn by internal strife and badly lacked the capacity to govern. People’s disappointment in that government lingers still.

The number of political parties had been expected to decrease following the introduction of the current lower house electoral system combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation blocs. However, opposition parties have repeatedly split, and have failed to project a vision for the government they wish to form. The political reform has shown that simply changing the election system alone is not enough to create an environment in which capable political parties can be formed.

Prime Minister Abe is also responsible for the current situation. More than six years have passed since he returned to power. The prime minister has kept criticizing opposition parties by playing up economic indices that suggest better performance than under the DPJ-led government. He recently described the previous administration as being “like a nightmare.”

One cannot help but wonder why the LDP has lost the tolerance that led to it calling for a transfer of power 30 years ago. Prime Minister Abe appears unable even to accept the fact that opinions different from his exist.

Despite being representatives of the people, opposition parties spend all their time confronting the government, and never strive to form consensus in the legislature.

The prime minister has dissolved the lower house for a snap general election when opposition parties were unprepared. And when the LDP wins, the premier acts as if to say all his government’s policies have won the confidence of voters. This practice is not fair. It is more desirable for the prime minister to call an election after both the ruling and opposition parties have worked out campaign pledges and are fully prepared.

In the political reform, one of the key points of contention was how to establish a system in which the Cabinet plays a leading role in drawing up and implementing policy. In other words, one of the goals of the political reform was to transform the hitherto bureaucrat-led policy-making process into one led by politicians.

However, the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which was established under the second Abe administration, controls personnel management at all ministries and agencies. As a result, bureaucrats cannot frankly express their opinions to the prime minister and tend to surmise his intentions in implementing policy measures.

Allowing the Cabinet to work out policy measures was designed to increase transparency of the policy-making processes. Nevertheless, the Finance Ministry doctored documents on a heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to the Moritomo Gakuen school operator, which had links to Prime Minister Abe’s wife Akie. There has since been a tendency within the government to clad the policy-making machinery in secrecy.

It is the Diet’s role to monitor what the executive branch of the government is doing. However, the legislature has failed to fulfill this role, and acts instead like a subcontractor of the administrative branch. This is apparently because the prime minister has forgotten the spirit of the 1989-1994 political reform and used changes to the system to his advantage.

Critics have warned that democratic politics are in crisis in various countries, including Britain, which Japan has regarded as a model. The Heisei era comes to an end at the end of this month. In political reform in the next Reiwa era, it is necessary to discuss what the Diet is and what political parties truly are.


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