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2009 Japanese Election

by Forrest Barnum // Published July 27, 2009

As Japan heads into election season, prognosticators assert the inevitability of dramatic defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). If the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) manages to gain power, it would represent a sea change in Japanese politics; save for a brief nine-month period in the early 1990s, the LDP has ruled Japan since the post-WWII restoration of civilian government. Following the 2006 resignation of popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, The LDP suffered stagnation, internal strife, and a series of scandals. Unsurprisingly, the DPJ is taking advantage of these dynamics by running on a change platform.

Hopefully, change will not stop with new policies and personalities but will also include thorough systematic reform. Japan's outdated electoral system, called the parallel vote or mixed-member-majoritarian, has aided and abetted the insular bureaucratic politics of the post-war years. FairVote's analysis of the 2005 Japanese election thoroughly illustrates the distorted outcomes this parallel voting system produces (pdf). Simply put, this system fuses a first-past-the-post election with a list election, with the list seats elected proportionally according to each party's raw vote total. To be truly proportional, the list seats would need to be allocated in a manner that 'fixes' the disproportionate result in the first-past-the-post seats (this is called mixed-member-proportional or MMP). This system is used in many nations, including Germany and New Zealand. Japan's electoral problem is compounded by having too many first-past-the-post seats (300) to list seats (180). While the list seats are won by a diverse group of candidates and are equitably distributed between the parties, the total result still bears little relation to the seat percentage. According to the latest polls, the DPJ will benefit from these systemic flaws in the same way the LDP has in the past; earning a plurality of the vote and a majority of seats. With any luck, the expected change in government will encourage a second look at the basic instruments of Japanese democracy, or inevitably, the same neuroanaesthesia that doomed the present government will return and stunt the democratic potential of this prosperous island nation.