EDITORIAL: The Asahi Shimbun's blueprint for political reform

November 14, 2011

A change in the electoral framework means that Japan now has at least a semblance of a two-party system.

The problem is that both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party come across as houses divided by a mishmash of haphazard policies.

They are now locked in fierce internal debate over issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and raising the consumption tax rate. There is also fractious conflict over those who support scandal-tainted political kingpin Ichiro Ozawa and those who don't.

The public is amazed and appalled by a divide so deep that neither party resembles anything like a force united.

Given this state of affairs, we call on the powers that be to implement "political reform part 2." By this, we mean a revamp of the system in line with steps taken in the 1990s when a combination of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation was introduced in the Lower House.

As a first step, the political parties, especially the two main ones, need to implement a thorough shakeup.

The confusion that now defines the political parties symbolizes the sorry state of the nation's politics. Improving the electoral system is essential to clearing the air. But that is an issue we will deal with in a future editorial.

In a national election, political parties present their policies, select candidates, and together with the party leader, who is automatically a nominee for prime minister, ask the public to make a judgment. Therefore, these three items should be the starting point of reform.

Candidates in proportional representation

First, with regards to policy, parties must fundamentally change the way they draw up their electoral manifestos.

The DPJ's approach of compiling a bunch of false promises to lure voters before an election does not work.

Party members should hold open debates over the course of six months or a full year prior to adopting the manifestos at a general convention.

There is no way a political party can ask the public to make painful choices without subjecting itself to this painstaking process.

The next item is candidate selection. We believe that election primaries are essential. This would ensure that the candidates who run have a wide variety of talent, instead of being scions of political families or those backed by special interest groups.

As of now, the LDP has opened 82 of its 300 single-seat Lower House constituencies to the public. Many of these districts lack an incumbent, and usually the local LDP executives select the candidates. Would it not be better to hold primaries and give party members and associates more opportunities to voice their opinions?

Primaries should also be mandatory for incumbents up for re-election. Each party should organize its own primaries. The focus should be on ensuring that sufficient time is given to the process. That does not require a great deal of money.

Here's an audacious thought. Why not leave it to voters to decide who wins the primaries. This would help to ease frustration over the single-seat constituencies whereby one nominee per party allows voters to choose a party, not an individual. This process would be cumbersome, but effective in marshaling voices that have a hard time being heard in politics. It would also help parties to set down roots in local communities.

Attention must also be given to candidates who lose. This is important. Creating a solid framework in which the party supports the livelihood of those who lose would give birth to a system that allows such candidates to emerge again. If that happens, we would have fewer politicians sucking up to the voters because they fear losing their seats.

The lineup of candidates for proportional districts also needs to be overhauled. We should try out systems in which the male to female ratio is 50:50, or allocate a given number of candidates for each generation, or profession. This would create a Diet that is closer to the will of the people. This would also get rid of candidates who stand in both single-seat and proportional constituencies.

Re-examining terms of office for party leaders

Time should be taken to carefully formulate policy and pick the most suitable candidates. This would require the involvement of supporters and voters.

Such a process would strengthen the democratic workings of each party and create entities with strong policies. To make sure this happens, the basic assumption should be that once voters have spoken in a national election, the party leader should basically fulfill his or her four years in office. This is a practice that really needs to take root.

The third item is choosing a party leader. This should be a half-year process in which parties and voters are given an opportunity to take a multi-faceted look at a candidate along with his or her insights and policies. We should really put a stop to the habit of rough-and-ready choices made by mainly Diet members in the space of a mere fortnight.

The leaders of the two main parties both reach the end of their terms next autumn. If the two parties begin their policy debates as part of their leadership selection process as early as next spring, then we will surely be witness to a whole new political landscape spreading before us.

The election cycle should coincide with when party leaders end their terms. Consider the case of Junichiro Koizumi, who won a massive victory in a Lower House election but stepped down as prime minister because his term as party leader had expired. This sort of thing diminishes the rationale of holding an election as a means of choosing a new government.

After gaining control of the government, the prime minister's term of office as party leader should be put on hold. In our view, the party leader should have to undergo a selection process again immediately prior to the next national election.

Practice of 'honoring' the Lower House

These reform proposals should not be made mandatory by law, but rather implemented by the parties as they see fit. It would be ideal if the parties, in seeking public support, competed to come up with other ideas for reform.

There is also a quick remedy that would allow politics to regain its functions. That would be to lower the barriers of the "twisted Diet" like the current one in which the ruling parties control the Lower House and the opposition controls the Upper House.

Specifically, the parties should reach a gentleman's agreement that enhances the superiority of the Lower House, in order to check the powers of the "too-strong Upper House."

The Lower House already has superiority over the Upper House in matters like nominating the prime minister, approving the budget and ratifying treaties--all stipulated in the Constitution. In addition, if Lower House decisions on only budget-related bills and appointments requiring Diet approval were to be respected, then that would be great progress. The opposition would no longer be able to attack the government while holding hostage bills on deficit bond issuance or Bank of Japan governor appointments.

One other thing would be to turn the conference committee of both Diet chambers, which coordinates the two houses when they vote differently, into an organization that can put together a compromise bill.

At the moment, 10 lawmakers from both houses confer to put together a compromise bill, which requires a two-thirds majority in committee. At present, participating Lower House lawmakers are all chosen from the ruling parties and Upper House lawmakers from the opposition. Given this state of affairs, there can be no agreement.

But if committee members for both houses are chosen according to party representation in each chamber, and if the compromise bill requires only a simple majority, then it would be easier to reach an agreement.

This is something that can be done right away, if we put our minds to it.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 13

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