Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Banning hereditary politicians

Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief election strategist, spoke in Fukuoka on Monday, where he suggested that the government might not wait until September 2009 to call an election after all. He noted that the prime minister might instead decide to call an election in early 2009, before the start of the ordinary Diet session, or in March or April following the passage of next year's budget.

But the more interesting portion of his remarks pertained to the role of hereditary Diet members. A recent column by Shiota Ushio in Toyo Keizai notes that there are 180 hereditary members between the upper and lower houses, amounting to a quarter of the total membership of the two houses of the Diet. Of the past ten prime ministers, all but Murayama Tomiichi and Mori Yoshiro have been second- or third-generation members of the Diet. 40% of LDP members of the Diet are, according to Shiota, hereditary Diet members.

Mr. Koga, not a hereditary politician himself, sees this as a problem. Indeed, he sees the prevalence of hereditary members within the LDP as a source of the party's fragility.

"Hereditary Diet members are not well acquainted with hardship — born in Tokyo, raised in Tokyo. Even if theirs is a rural electoral district, they don't really understand the area. This has led to the LDP's weakness."

Undoubtedly a certain portion of the party sees the matter differently.

Has the LDP been mortally wounded by its hereditary members? Would the LDP have governed differently, especially over the past twenty years, had its ranks been filled with more members who hadn't been born into politics? The LDP is weak not because its members are weak (or weak-headed), but because the system it engineered and used to stay in power is crumbling. One could even argue that hereditary politicians make better politicians, having learned the art of politics from a young age. (I don't actually believe this, but one could logically make the argument. Why don't I believe it? Exhibit one: Abe Shinzo. Exhibit two: the Hatoyama boys.) Non-hereditary members are little better. "Understanding the area," in Mr. Koga's terms, has often meant knowing the right people to deal with when it comes to rounding up votes and passing out favors (AKA public funds). No group of politicians is inherently better or worse than the other.

It is with this in mind that I read a recent Mainichi editorial on a proposal being mooted by the DPJ. A subcommittee of the party's headquarters of political reform headed by Noda Yoshihiko, charged by reviewing the Public Office Election law, wants to submit a bill to the autumn extraordinary session that will make it illegal for children to run in seats once held by their parents. (I suppose the bill would apply only to parents and children. No word on whether this would apply to other relatives [grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.].) Mr. Noda hopes to secure LDP agreement on this issue. Mainichi applaudes this idea, and suggests that even if the bill doesn't become law, the DPJ should go ahead and write this provision into the DPJ's party laws, noting that this is a good way for the DPJ to distinguish itself from the LDP. Given the aforementioned ratio of hereditary to non-hereditary Diet members in the LDP — not to mention that presence of hereditary members in important positions in the DPJ — this bill is unlikely to be introduced to or passed in the Diet. And it won't make it into the party rules.

Is this such a bad thing? The Mainichi editorial suggests that the rise of the hereditary member is indicative of a drying up of the political talent pool. But is the prevalence of hereditary members a cause or an effect of the lack of talented candidates for public office? Does the party turn to hereditary members because it can't find anyone else, or do good people stay away from politics because of corruption, the inheritance of Diet seats included?

But as I argued before, hereditary members are not inherently better or worse than non-hereditary members, and I'm not certain that Mr. Koga's claim that hereditary members are more out of touch from their districts than non-hereditary members is true. I suppose that the reason why people — and Mainichi — have a problem with hereditary members is not that they dilute the talent of the political class or anything like that, but that they are an offense to democratic sensibilities. And they are! If hereditary members are not inherently superior to non-hereditary members, why not give non-hereditary candidates a chance to screw up rob the people blind represent the people. Some readers may recall that I had a certain grudging respect for the late, unlamented Matsuoka Toshikatsu, who clawed his way into politics and who was sacrificed in order to save the government of Mr. Abe, that exemplar of hereditary politicians.

But it seems to me that a bill along the lines suggested by Mr. Noda and encouraged by Mainichi would be unconstitutional. The first part of article 14 of the constitution reads, "All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin." Banning second- or third-generation politicians from running in certain districts looks to me like discrimination in political relations based on family origin.

The Japanese people will have to continue to tolerate the presence of hereditary politicians in their midst. After all, it is the people who are responsible for the existence of hereditary Diet members. Mainichi neglects to mention this, instead pointing to the advantages enjoyed by hereditary members in terms of money, name recognition, and preexisting campaign organizations. But the people still ultimately have a choice whether to elect a hereditary politician.

Instead of banning hereditary members, perhaps Mr. Noda and the DPJ should consider more substantial revisions to Japan's election laws that make it easier for challengers to contend with hereditary politicians. Why not lift restrictions that make it difficult for candidates to interact with voters one-on-one? Why not loosen restrictions on when, where, and how a candidate can compete for public office — Japan's incumbency protection laws? Arguably the job security enjoyed by incumbent Diet members is a greater threat to Japanese governance than hereditary Diet members.


Anonymous said...

From a democratic point of view, hereditary members of the Diet would certainly be a problem. But the argument that politician's children have an advantage due to the influence of their parent's experience over their formative years also makes some sense. Examining this latter argument does however raise questions such as the unlikelihood that children of politicians will uniformly get a desired set of lessons from growing up in a political home. Of the few examples I am aware of, I thought that Tanaka Makiko, daughter of the super-politico Tanaka Kakuei, did unusually well as Foreign Minister under Koizumi Junichiro, showing great courage in going public with her criticism of Koizumi's Yasukuni Shrine visits. She was fired because of this incident and ran as an independent after being kicked out of the LDP. Kono Taro is another child who followed his father Kono Yohei into politics but I have little knowledge or information about how he is doing. Hopefully he will develop the same kind of sensible and pacifistic views as his father has exhibited.

Bryce said...

"The Mainichi editorial suggests that the rise of the hereditary member is indicative of a drying up of the political talent pool."

Balls. The "rise" of hereditary members is the result of election law. Under the multimember district electoral system from 1925 to 1993, candidates had to figure out a way of mobilising their own section of the vote, as they were not allowed to advertise their candidacy in the broadcast media and the party label meant diddly squat because they were competing against members in their own party anyway. This led to the rise in Koenkai, an army of supporters around the candidate. Koenkai members were not necessarily connected to the party and would mobilise the vote by engaging in electoral activities that were illegal for those receiving party funds. They would also coordinate the share of the vote between competing members of the LDP and therefore maximise LDP advantage overall. Koenkai members would also be loyal to whomever the politician at the centre named as their successor (usually the offspring) resulting in hereditary leadership.

The electoral reforms of 1993, were supposed to stop all of this, but like any good institution, koenkai have just adapted to the new political environment by attracting those supporters who like the local candidate but don't necessarily like their party and choose to split their vote. In other words, even now they perform a function that local LDP branches do not and will continue to survive. And so too will hereditary members.

The point of all of this is that banning hereditary members won't make much of a difference, as politicians will just appoint their younger friends or family to the position anyway, or, I suspect that politicians will cut deals with each other so that they can "swap" heirs in order to circumvent the rule. i.e. Politician in seat X will hand politician in seat Y's son his or her koenkai when he/she dies/retires on the condition that Politician in seat Y will do likewise in reverse.

If you want to get rid of hereditary members, ban koenkai.