Masayuki Kameda, MPA
Former Brazilian president Lula da Silva once joked about Japanese prime ministers that you say “good morning” to one and “good afternoon” to another. Granted, it’s an exaggeration, but Japan is the only country in which the head of state delivering a speech at the annual UN General Assembly has been different in three consecutive years: Taro Aso in 2008, Yukio Hatoyama in 2009, and Naoto Kan in 2010. And this year, it will be the newly appointed Yoshihiko Noda, the sixth prime minister that Japan has seen in the last five years.
While many point out Japan’s political culture of habatsu (inner party factions) or the fickle public and the media as the main reasons for the instability of Japanese leadership, one fundamental factor that is often overlooked is the short election cycles of the house and party leadership.
In a way, clinging onto the position of prime minister in Japan is like having to compete in and continually win a popularity contest held every one or two years. The average time between national house elections are roughly two years, with ballots cast every four years for the lower house and every three years for half of the the upper house. Each election has a direct impact on the longevity of the prime minister, as the cabinet (headed by the prime minister) is chosen by members of both houses following the election. If the ruling party loses in the lower house elections, the opposing party naturally chooses a different house member from among its ranks to serve as the new leader. This occurred in September 2009 when Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was replaced by Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) following a general election which resulted in a historic landslide victory for the DPJ.
And if the ruling party loses in the upper house elections, even though by law the prime minister doesn’t have to change (since the lower house – still controlled by the ruling party – can override the decision of the upper house in choosing the leader), the prime minister is often coerced to resign by his or her own party members as a way of taking the responsibility for the defeat. For instance, Shinzo Abe (prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007) stepped down a month after his party’s devastating loss in the upper house election, facing a stalemate in the legislature and criticisms from both inside and outside his party.
Moreover, the prime minister doesn’t even have to lose an election in order to be replaced. Merely the fact that an election is coming up creates incentives to oust the prime minister. Sometimes, before a national election the prime minister is pressured by his or her own party members to step down if the cabinet’s approval ratings are too low. This way, the party can go into an election with a more popular leader. This occurred twice in the past five years. Facing plummeting approval ratings, Yasuo Fukuda (prime minister from September 2007 to September 2008) submitted to voices in his party which argued that they will not be able to succeed in the lower house election scheduled to take place within a year with him as the head. The same happened to Yukio Hatoyama (prime minister from September 2009 to June 2010), resigning just one month before the upper house election.
In addition to these national elections, each party has its own rules for electing its party leader. For instance, the term of the party leader for the DPJ, the current ruling party, is two years. And if the leader steps down before the term expires and an election is held to replace him or her, the newly elected leader only serves the remainder of the predecessor’s term. For instance, the new Prime Minister Noda’s term is limited to the remaining one year that he succeeded from former Prime Minister Kan’s term. If he is to serve for over a year, he will have to survive another party leadership election that is scheduled to be held next year. And even if he does succeed in defending his position in a party leadership election in 2012, he will have to face a general election of both houses in the summer of 2013.
Of course, critics are correct that the habatsu and the capricious public also carry some responsibility. In this unhealthy political climate, even if election cycles were elongated, things may still remain the same. After all, the recent change in leadership was brought forth not by an immediate election but because of Kan’s inability to get things done. Plunging approval ratings, interparty power struggle, and the legislative stalemate resulting from a divided parliament all made it extremely difficult for Kan to continue.
However, it is also true that short election cycles have been and will continue to be an obstacle for any prime minister to stay in office for an extended period. And while political culture is extremely hard to change, the election cycles can be revised. In order to end Japan’s unfortunate record at the UN General Assembly, and more importantly, to allow the prime minister to develop better long-term strategy for Japan as well as close relationships with other world leaders, this fractious election system must be reconsidered urgently.