The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Rebuilding Japanese Politics by Establishing Self-governance in Political Parties: (2) A Challenge for the New Administration

January 8, 2010

In part two of this article, we will present reform proposals for rebuilding Japanese politics, bearing in mind the shortcomings and distortions in Japan's parliamentary cabinet system, as it has been operating during decades of Liberal Democratic Party rule, which is described in part one.

II. Reform Proposals for Rebuilding Japanese Politics 1

Click here for part one of this article.

Improving Parties’ Ability to Make and Implement Policy

1. Strengthen the role of manifestoes and policymaking to remedy current inadequacies in the ability to propose policies and a national vision.

If we are to make Japan’s parliamentary cabinet system function properly, we must first create a situation in which everything revolves around policy. This would turn elections into policy-based choices and enable us to start the process of remaking the system shown in Chart 2 into that shown in Chart 1 .

First, let us consider what should be done to improve the policies that parties include in their manifestoes and increase the extent to which these policies are realized.

At present, everything revolves around the bureaucracy, and bureaucrats are firmly in control of the information and expertise needed to make policy. Changing this situation is an important issue, and one point that requires special attention is the treatment of opposition parties. Although they share this information to some extent with the ruling party in behind-the-scenes policymaking “groundwork,” civil servants have no incentive to share information with opposition parties, with the result that the opposition cannot access adequate data on which to base their policy proposals. The prospect of this information being disclosed to the opposition may be alarming for the ruling party because it would destroy a long-held privilege, but for the voters who choose whether the ruling or opposition party will form the next government it is important for every party to put forward a good manifesto. Needless to say, a healthy democracy needs a powerful opposition.

There are a number of examples in other countries of mechanisms for disclosing information to political parties. In the Netherlands, a politically neutral body called the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) discloses its economic and fiscal forecasts for the next several years to all political parties prior to an election, and each party produces its manifesto based on these data. The CPB also analyzes the costs of implementing the policies proposed in the manifestoes and other factors and points out any inconsistencies.

In Australia, meanwhile, there is a system by which, before an election, the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties submit requests to the Treasury to calculate the costs of their manifestoes and analyze the effects of each of their policies on fiscal revenue and expenditure. Mechanisms like this provide important evidence by which voters can judge whether parties have based their policies on solid information. Naturally the parties, for their part, must produce practical, evidence-based policies this kind of analysis, and this makes for more credible manifestoes.

Around 32 billion yen per year is disbursed from Japan’s national treasury in the form of subsidies for political parties, with the money distributed according to the number of seats and proportion of the vote won by each party in the most recent election. In short, the ruling party receives the most money.

If, however, we divide the funds required for parties to conduct their activities into daily operating expenses and policymaking expenses, then we can say that the former type of spending increases in proportion to the number of lawmakers that belong to the party, while the latter is necessary to all parties to some extent, regardless of whether they are in the ruling or opposition camp. Funds for use in policymaking should therefore not be allocated in direct proportion to the number of lawmakers in the party. South Korea also has a system of subsidies for political parties, for example, but half of the total sum available is distributed in equal portions to all parties, while only the remaining half is allocated in proportion to each party’s number of seats and proportion of the vote. Similarly, under the Policy Development Grants Scheme in Britain, half of the total funding is distributed equally to the parties, while the other half is allocated in line with each party’s absolute share of the vote.

To promote the establishment of a system in which the reins of government change hands in a sound manner through choices made by voters on the basis of party manifestoes, we should rethink the practice of allocating subsidies to political parties in simple proportion to their numbers of seats and shares of the vote and modify the system so that some of the funds are allocated equally to parties meeting certain criteria.

In addition to the above task, measures need to be taken to facilitate the comparison and wide and early distribution of manifestoes and to have the ruling party regularly announce its progress in implementing its manifesto.

2. Enhance the relationship between the ruling parties and the cabinet to rectify the lack of cabinet leadership

Next, let us turn to the issue of the governing party's ability to execute policies and of clarifying its responsibility in this regard.

As we have seen, while there are advantages to a party’s having an internal forum for policy debate, such a forum invalidates the party’s manifesto and the parliamentary cabinet system if it negates the cabinet’s own policymaking. It is impossible to bring about responsible politics when it is unclear who is deciding policy and where responsibility lies. Once it is established in both name and deed that ultimate responsibility for government policy lies with the cabinet and individual ministers, the ruling party will need to build a system for conveying its internal discussions and resolutions to the cabinet.

Another problem relating to cabinet leadership is the brevity of recent prime ministers’ terms of office. There have been repeated changes of leadership at the head of the ruling party for the sake of factional control or for party reasons with no direct relation to policy, even though the leader bears the responsibility of having been chosen in an election as a candidate for prime minister. Such chopping and changing is debilitating for a system of national government. There is an urgent need to forge a system in which the leader of the ruling party (i.e. the prime minister) selected in a general election can securely retain his or her position and get on with the business of running the country until the next general election.

By eliminating committees of the party research council that were dependent on the various ministries, the new DPJ administration eliminated the dual power structure that had long been in place and gave the cabinet full control of the policymaking process. This was to prevent the emergence of special-interest “tribal” legislators strongly affiliated with specific ministries.

Instead, policy meetings for each ministry—hosted by the senior vice-minister and attended by parliamentary secretaries, members of related Diet committees, and other ruling-party legislators wishing to participate—were established as forums to hear the views of noncabinet ruling-party Diet members. At these meetings, policy proposals are explained to rank-and-file members by the senior vice-minister and parliamentary secretary, and views are exchanged. Those views are conveyed at meetings of the political- appointee councils, after which the ministers refer the policy decisions made to the government. Under his arrangement, the senior-vice-minister-level appointees serve as a link between cabinet ministers and rank-and-file members.

In addition to eliminating the functions of the party research council, to prevent the emergence of “tribal” legislators and achieve smooth policymaking, we also propose the banning, in principle, of lawmaker-initiated legislation. 2

Establishing Self-governance in Political Parties

As stated earlier, to improve governance at the national level, the parties charged with running the country must establish their own self-governance and demonstrate to the people that they have done so. To this end, improvements must be made, at the very least, in the following areas.

3. Strengthen the powers and responsibilities of party organizations to secure transparency in policy and personnel decisions

In the case of a company, the internal institutions that must be established (shareholders’ meeting, directors, board of directors, president, auditors, etc.) are stipulated by the Companies Act, which also sets out the significance and powers of each institution and the methods for selecting and deselecting members, convening meetings, and passing resolutions. The reason for stipulating these in law is that companies (especially listed companies) are highly public bodies.

There are, by contrast, no legal regulations on the internal institutions of parties. Everything is left to each party’s own rules, despite the fact that political parties are organizations of an extremely public nature—using nearly 32 billion yen of taxpayers’ money (political party subsidies), receiving over 80 billion yen of nontaxable income every year, and exercising tremendous influence over the nation’s policymaking process. Alongside a guarantee of the freedom of political association, either a broad framework for rules on how parties operate should be stipulated in law, or parties should be compelled to stipulate these rules in their own regulations.

Table 1. Branches of Political Parties

Liberal Democratic Party 7,726
Democratic Party of Japan 552
New Komeito 440
Social Democratic Party 292
People’s New Party 89
New Party Nippon 4

It is also necessary to clarify the relationship between parties’ headquarters and branches and their respective roles and responsibilities.

Party branches, as their name suggests, are a party’s regional organizations; as such, they should by rights be subject to the governance of the party headquarters. At present, however, these branches have been appropriated for private use by the Diet members that belong to them and by local assembly members around the country, who use them as receptacles for political donations. This is why the LDP has more than 7,700 branches across Japan. To make a corporate parallel, the mission of a company’s regional branches is to implement the head office’s guidelines and instructions—not, needless to say, to serve the interests of each branch’s locally based manager.

To improve this situation, we must first bring to an end the role of party branches as receptacles for political donations by prohibiting Diet members from serving concurrently as branch directors and limiting the number of branches parties may establish per administrative unit. Once these steps have been taken, I believe that parties should stipulate in their rules the functions to be performed by their branches (candidate selection and activities to increase communication with voters).

4. Scrutinizing candidate selection methods to remedy the prevalence of “hereditary politicians”

Candidates seeking election to the Diet include local assembly members, bureaucrats, politicians’ secretaries, those selected by parties through public solicitation, and so-called hereditary politicians 3 , who now make up the largest group (a third of LDP members of the House of Representatives prior to the recent general election fell into this category). Whatever route a person takes to candidacy, however, voters have little idea of what qualities parties seek in their candidates or of the criteria and process by which they are selected. Standing as a candidate in an election, meanwhile, tends to be regarded as an extraordinary thing to do by society at large, and many company workers who choose to stand are forced to quit their jobs; this barrier prevents talented, motivated people from entering politics.

The reason why hereditary politicians are so controversial is that the electoral resources they inherit from previous generations of their families—the jiban (constituency; literally “terrain”), kanban (name recognition; “billboard”), and kaban (fundraising apparatus; “briefcase”)—give them a tremendous advantage when fighting an election. Yet the constituency and fundraising apparatus issues could be improved if parties put in place their own rules. Rather than restricting the “evil” of hereditary practices, we need to establish a system that eliminates the inequality between hereditary and nonhereditary politicians.

“Hereditary Politicians” in Other Countries

Britain Of the 23 cabinet ministers in the current Labour Party government, one is a hereditary politician. The advantages of hereditary status are relatively small, because most members of the House of Commons were parachuted in from outside to stand for election in their constituencies. The number of hereditary peers in the upper house, the House of Lords, was slashed from 750 to less than 100 in reforms implemented in 1999.
United States The proportion of hereditary lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives is around 5%. As fundraising is so important, name recognition gives hereditary candidates a big advantage.
South Korea Candidates are selected by party members in each electoral district, so there is no advantage to hereditary status unless the candidate’s parent is extremely powerful.

Under the single-seat constituency system, Diet members' everyday activities are often intimately connected with their constituencies; this means that local campaigning tends to take precedence over politics and policy, with the result that politics itself is undermined. And as lawmakers find it hard to let go of the constituencies they have “nurtured” with such devotion, hereditary practices tend to become more and more entrenched.

Turning to the issue of political finance, the fact that political fund management organizations can be passed, as is, from generation to generation puts new candidates at a tremendous disadvantage in the increasingly costly field of election campaigning.

I believe we should put in place a system in which all motivated individuals are equally able to stand as candidates and parties can secure able candidates regardless of their career backgrounds.

The DPJ has been calling for the abandonment of hereditary politics since before the recent general election, and for the 2009 general election applied a party rule of not endorsing family members running consecutively from the same electoral district when they are the spouse or within three degrees of kinship of an outgoing Diet member.

To rectify the inequities in funding between hereditary and nonhereditary candidates, moreover, the DPJ has indicated it will bar spouses and relatives within three degrees of kinship from (1) taking over leadership of a political organization and (2) receiving individually or on behalf of political organizations the political funds of their family member’s political organizations as donations.

5. Eliminate political funding scandals by tightening funding regulations

Every time a scandal involving money and politics occurs, discussion turns to restricting individual fundraising channels, such as corporate donations. Scandals continue to arise, though, because it is not possible to eliminate every method for evading the law, such as indirect donations. This is why thorough disclosure of information on political funding is essential. That political parties should issue reports on their overall income and expenditure goes without saying, but they also bear partial responsibility for funding scandals involving their Diet members.

At present, the sheer number of fundraising groups and the lack of consistency in how they operate makes it almost impossible to discover the whole truth about the flow of money. To improve this situation, Diet members should be restricted to one fund management organization for receiving political funds. In addition, party branches should cease to function as receptacles for donations to individual Diet members and should actively disclose information to voters and devote themselves to their original purposes, such as the selection of candidates.

While the DPJ is calling for greater transparency in political funds through revisions to the Political Funds Control Law, there are as yet no concrete prospects for realization. The DPJ’s “Index 2009” policy platform contains recommendations for an extension in the period of retention of receipts and reports. These minor revisions are necessary, but unless bold and sweeping reforms are made, there will be no fundamental improvement in the current situation.

6. Enhance accountability to voters to eliminate political opacity

We voters provide the basis for political parties’ activities through the action of voting, through political party subsidies funded by our taxes, and through more than 80 billion yen of nontaxable income in the form of donations and party dues. Just as a company has responsibilities to its shareholders, its employees, and to consumers and society as a whole, political parties have responsibilities to their members, to the lawmakers that belong to them, and, above all, to the electorate as a whole.

Parties therefore have an inherent duty not to hold the kind of party conventions seen today but to keep voters regularly informed in the greatest possible detail of their specific policies and activities and of how they use the money they receive.
I believe that the biggest task entrusted by voters to the new administration at the recent general election was to take the first step in rebuilding Japanese politics by institutionalizing these proposals through the establishment of a new law on political parties and revisions to related existing laws so as to consolidate parties' policymaking ability and self-governance. Taking proper action to rebuild politics will establish the foundations for running a country facing a mountain of problems.

While the DPJ has yet to host a general assembly of voters, its awareness of the need for greater accountability to voters and information disclosure can be gleaned from the Government Revitalization Unit’s efforts to cut wasteful budget expenses in full public view.

1 These proposals have been published by the independent, not-for-profit think tank Japan Initiative, of which the author is the representative.
2 Excluding bills dealing with particularly political issues, such as those relating to elections and the political activities of Diet members.
3 This term refers to Diet members who have a blood relative within three degrees of consanguinity or a relative by marriage within two degrees of affinity with experience of serving in the Diet and have taken over this relative’s name recognition, supporters’ association, and other political assets (as defined in “What Is a ‘Hereditary Politician’?” p. 14, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 15, 2009).

    • President, Tokyo Foundation (2006-2012)
    • Hideki Kato
    • Hideki Kato

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