Japan’s elections are on Sunday. Prime Minister Abe’s party faces brand-new opponents

People listen to a speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an election campaign in Tokyo on Oct. 20. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

In late September, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo dissolved Japan’s House of Representatives and called a snap election. At the same time, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced the formation of the new Hope Party, which aimed to win enough seats to replace Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The next twists? The leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, disbanded his party and encouraged its candidates, many of them incumbents, to “apply” to run under the Hope banner. Unhappy with the Hope party’s requirements that they support its center-right platform on national security and constitutional revision, a group of Democratic Party incumbents then decided to form their own party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Japan’s media has given these new players a lot of attention over the past two weeks. But it looks like it will be business as usual in Sunday’s election, which means that once again, Japan’s LDP will win a large majority, and form the next government.

From the perspective of my research, this combination of drama during the campaign but little actual change in outcome is all rather predictable. Japan’s electoral system makes it easy to form new parties, but difficult to make those parties united enough, centrist enough, and large enough to unseat the LDP.

How Japan’s electoral system influences ideological competition

In Japan’s mixed-member electoral system, some candidates run in districts and are elected via plurality rule, while others are placed on party lists, with voters being asked to choose between party lists. Unlike the mixed-member systems in Germany and New Zealand, the seats a party wins in Japan’s single-member district (SMD) and proportional-representation (PR) tiers are added together after the election to make up each party’s seat total in the 465-seat House of Representatives.

Theories of electoral competition suggest that the need to place first in an SMD will give rise to only two serious candidates — but the lower barrier to gaining seats through the PR tier will give rise to more than two parties. And the two candidates vying for first place in a district will tend to converge on a centrist ideological position. When there are more than two parties vying for a smaller fraction of the vote, on the other hand, they will not converge, and will spread out across the ideological spectrum.

This leads us to expect that Japan’s party system will be characterized by two majority-seeking parties, which capture seats in both tiers, plus a raft of smaller parties that capture the bulk of their seats in proportional representation. The two larger parties will adopt centrist positions, while the smaller parties will tend to adopt positions that are ideologically dispersed.

My study showed that from the very first election under this system in 1996 until 2009, this was more or less what happened. Candidates from the LDP and Democratic Party of Japan camps dominated competition in the SMDs, and each adopted similar ideological positions. And the PR competition was dominated by those parties and a raft of smaller ones, which adopted positions that were distinct from one another.

How do we know that Japan’s electoral system had these effects?

We know it is the SMD/PR combination that spawned this type of ideological competition because Japan used a different electoral system prior to 1996 — and competition in that system was quite different. Under Japan’s old electoral system, people ran in districts and voters had one vote, but more than one candidate won.

In some districts, the top three candidates on the vote-tally board won seats. In others, the top four or five vote-getters won. In this system, no one converged. Candidates took pains to distinguish themselves from every other candidate in their district, even those from the same party.

Lessons from the unraveling of this equilibrium in 2009

In 2009, the equilibrium of convergence in the positions of the two large parties and divergence in the positions of the smaller parties suddenly unraveled. Polls predicting a landslide by the Democratic Party of Japan released the pressure on these candidates to remain centrist and united. Candidates with left-leaning preferences moved left, while others with right-leaning preferences moved right.

After winning the election, Democratic Party leaders proved unable to rein in these divisions and the party’s support plummeted. Three years later, the LDP, which had remained united and centrist, was back.

Unseating Abe’s LDP will take a party that is large, united and centrist. Forming a party that satisfies all three criteria would be a tall order in any political system. But the inclusion of PR makes it an even taller order in Japan.

The fact that parties can gain a modicum of national-level representation with preferences that are not supported by a majority of voters means politicians don’t need to compromise on those preferences. They can still win seats, even without adhering to a centrist platform that could gain the support of a majority of voters.

Japan’s system facilitates the formation of multiple opposition parties. Even though these parties capture the bulk of their seats in PR, they also run candidates in SMDs. This has the effect of dividing the non-LDP vote, helping to secure victory for LDP candidates.

Did Hope come close? Sort of.

Two weeks ago, it appeared the Hope Party was close to satisfying these criteria. It had a platform that resembled the LDP’s, a form candidates were required to sign to verify their commitment to this platform and a stock of candidates ready to run. But Hope made a mistake by expecting candidates with track records of opposing key aspects of this platform to do an about-face. The credibility of the new party and its candidates was quickly called into question and the party lost much of its early momentum.

Notwithstanding the drama in the campaign, Sunday’s election looks set to hand a tidy victory to the LDP. Until a new party emerges that can truly be large, united and centrist, Japan’s elections will continue to revolve around the size of the LDP’s majority rather than which party will win.

Amy Catalinac is an assistant professor of politics at New York University, and the author of Electoral Reform and National Security in Japan: From Pork to Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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