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Debate: Commentary (December 25, 2003)

2003 Heralds the Dawn of a Two-party Political System in Japan

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Although history will not reveal its verdict for another decade or so, 2003 will probably be remembered as a significant year on the evolutionary ladder of Japanese politics. The November 2003 Lower House election witnessed the birth of a new political order in which two political parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are set to dominate the parliamentary landscape. For most of the smaller parties, 2003 probably marks the onset of their gradual extinction.

A considerable volume of the immediate post-election analysis and comment focused on what direction Japanese politics will take in the coming years. Would Japan become a mainly two-party system along the lines of the British model or would a more German-style system develop in which two large parties would either have to form a coalition with a smaller party or each other? Some political pundits were dismissive of the idea that a two-party era had arrived. These commentators believe that the election results are not particularly significant as despite impressive DPJ gains, the LDP still remained in power. However, the status quo interpretation does not tally with the data as the following brief analysis of the election results demonstrates.

The United Kingdom is often held up as the standard model for a two-party parliamentary system with the Conservative and Labour camps periodically capturing the reins of government from each other. If the Japanese Lower House election results are compared with the most recent British general election data, some intriguing parallels arise which appear to suggest that Japan has already established a solid basis for a two-party system.

For example, about 77.5% of the Japanese electorate voted for either the LDP or the DPJ, while their British counterparts cast 72.4% of their ballots for Labour or Conservative candidates. In Japan the two main parties ended up with 86.3% of the Lower House seats and in Britain the figure was almost the same at 87.9%.

However, the two electoral systems are not directly comparable as Britain has what is often termed a "first past the post" system in which the candidate with the most votes wins in a single seat constituency. Japan uses a similar method to Britain for 300 seats, but a proportional system is utilized for the remaining 180 seats. Despite the differences, it is still possible to make a reasonable comparison between the two countries by matching the "first past the post" portion of the Japanese system with the British data.

In June 2001, the Labour Party captured just 40.7% of the vote but won 62.7% of the seats. The Conservatives got 31.7% of the ballots but only picked up 25.2% of the seats. In the 300 single-seat Japanese constituencies, the LDP got 43.9% of the vote to capture 56% of the seats while the DPJ garnered 36.7%, gaining 35% of the seats. As the tables below illustrate, the Japanese "first past the post" constituencies produced a much more balanced outcome between the two main parties than the British equivalent.

Fig. 1. November 2003 Japanese Lower House Election Results in 300 Single-Seat Constituencies (excluding proportional seats)
Percentage of vote43.9%36.7%1.5% 8.1%2.9%1.3%N/A
Share of Seats56%35%3%0%0.33%1.33%4.33%
Single Seats168105901413

Fig 2. June 2001 British General Election Results in 659 Single-Seat Constituencies
PartyLabourConLib-DemsSNP & PCUUP & DUPSF & SDLPIndepens
Percentage of vote40.7%31.7%18.3% see notesee notesee notesee note
Share of Seats62.7%25.2%7.9%1.4%1.7%1 %0.1%
Total Seats413166529 (5 & 4)11 (6 & 5)7 (4 & 3)1
Note: Total share of vote for all small parties = 9.3%

Unlike Japan, Britain does not have any proportional seats. If it did, then it is unlikely that the UK would be considered a two-party system due to the consistently strong showing of the Liberal Democrats who often poll about 18% of the vote or more. If Britain had a mixed system like Japan or Germany, then coalition governments would probably be the norm.

In Japan's 180 proportional seats, the two major parties also dominate, with the DPJ gaining slightly more seats than the LDP (72 versus 69). This suggests that Japan is in some respects more of a two-party system than Britain or Germany. Additionally, Komei-to only did well in the proportional block due to its close cooperation with the LDP which allowed it to maximize its vote. Without the current LDP electoral pact, Komei-to would almost certainly be facing political annihilation like all of the other minor Japanese parties.

Fig 3. November 2003 Japanese Lower House Election Results in 180 Proportional Seats (excluding Single-Seat Constituencies)
Percentage of vote35%37.4%14.8%7.7%5.1%N/AN/A
Share of Seats38.3%40%13.9%5%2.8%N/AN/A
Proportional Seats6972259500

The data from both the directly and proportionally elected seats clearly indicates that a two-party system has established itself in Japan. At present, it is not possible to predict whether this will develop into a British or German style system in the long-term. The unpredictable ups and downs of political fortune and realignment will most likely decide the eventual outcome. Current analysis suggests that in the short-term a British-style two-party system may emerge.

Related Articles

Two-Party System Finally Emerges in Japan
Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 10 November 2003

Japan: The Day the Dragon Fell
Asia Times, 13 August 2003

Reflections on the Hosokawa Administration
Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2003

The LDP Continues to Defy Political Gravity: Is the Opposition Flawed?
Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 11 October 2002

Useful References

Not a Two-party System Yet
Hugh Cortazzi, Japan Times, 13 December 2003

Japan: Two's a Party, Three's a Crowd?
Jamie Miyazaki, Asia Times, 12 November 2003

Koizumi's Coalition Keeps Majority in Parliament, but Opposition Gains
Hitoshi Urabe, News Review 173, 10 November 2003

Election, North Korea, and Iraq
Katsuyuki Yakushiji, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 8 December 2003

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