Tuesday, August 31, 2010

“Byzantine”? On Bizarro World?

“The process is appropriately Byzantine for the notoriously murky Japanese politics. So much so that it has rarely been used. The last time the party held a leadership election using the full system was September 2002, when Yukio Hatoyama beat three others, including Mr. Kan.
from “Kan v. Ozawa: Who Decides?” Yuka Hayashi, WSJ,, 27 August 2010

Definition of BYZANTINE
a : of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation [a Byzantine power struggle]
b : intricately involved : labyrinthine [rules of Byzantine complexity]
What’s so “devious and…surreptitious” or “intricately involved” about a secret-vote election rule that has three clearly defined and identifiable sets of differently weighted voters? Obviously, the writer has never heard of the infinitely more byzantine US process aka presidential primaries, with its random-walk, hodge-podge of rules including an assortment of “caucuses,” which sometimes consist of nothing more than a bunch of hyper-motivated people braving snowstorms to huddle in various spots on an auditorium floor and beseech each other to come over to their side like some friendly version of touch-kabaddi. And don’t get me started on their “super-delegates.” The DPJ system by comparison is quite straightforward, simple, and transparent.

More importantly, the DPJ voting system of giving by far the largest share of votes per head to the Diet members—let’s call them hyper-delegates—the next largest share of votes per head to assemblypersons—super-delegates—and by far the smallest share to the rank-and-file makes constitutional sense. The Diet, which is supposed to elect the Prime Minister, is in turn elected by the Japanese public. To allow the party-rank-and-file, a mere fraction of the voters who voted for the DPJ, would disenfranchise the far more numerous voters-at-large and arguably make a travesty of the Japanese Constitution. The word seito (political party) never appears in the Constitution; like it or not, Japan is a representative democracy. There is also a good, though less convincing case to be made that the assemblyhumans, too, merit special consideration because they in turn have mandates from their constituencies by virtue of their elective offices. These are obviously not absolutes, and the DPJ way is not the only way the system could conceivably have been constructed. (The LDP for instance does not have the assemblyhomosapien super-delegate second tier.) The DPJ could revisit the allocation of the votes between the three tiers in view of the much larger number of parliamentarians now extant. But the system itself is very straightforward, simple, and transparent. At least much more so than the US primaries. As for the relative lack of use of the full process, she immediately provides her own answer: in seven out of the nine elections that she refers to, the DPJ chose the simple Diet members-only election process to choose the leader to serve out the remainder of their predecessors’ terms in mid-term elections, as explicitly allowed by the rules. In the other two cases, only one candidate stood for election. That does carry the stench of backroom smoke, but don’t blame the rules.

Okay, I actually think the US primaries are a lot of fun, and get a lot of people engaged politically that otherwise mightn’t have been. But Hayashi’s claim just doesn’t make sense.

More significant perhaps to the public interest, just because Kan raised the consumption tax issue doesn’t mean that he has become a "”fiscal conservative.” He’s a tax-and-spend social democrat without the stomach for Scandinavian labor laws until proven otherwise.

I’ve mostly stopped going after the media, but I thought that it would be a shame to confine to my outbox my response to an email that I’d received, especially since I could adapt its contents with little effort as a blog post. In Hayashi’s defense, she generally comes across as a competent journalist.


Janne Morén said...

I agree that the rules aren't that bad. They are reasonable, and sound pretty similar to party election rules I have seen in other places.

However, I disagree that party elections could somehow or other impinge on the rights of voters in general. They are private parties in every sense, and can arguably decide on their positions and candidates any way they want. A party with one member-one vote would be just fine, as would having an unelected comittee - the party founders, say - unilaterally decide on every post. As would a party putting all names in a gigantic hat and have a parrot draw the party leader by lot.

After all, the electorate elects parties, and presumably the way the party is organized and the way its candidates are chosen is readily available information. If nothing else, an unorthodox way of choosing candidates would likely be pointed out to the electorate by their competitors. That's them breaks, and if you don't like how the possible future prime minister is selected, then why vote for the party in the first place?

But really, this is going after the wrong problem. You - and a lot of other people - aren't bothered by the election process so much as by the fact that an internal election (within DPJ or the LDP) can choose a prime minister at all, without the input of the electorate. The way to remedy this is probably to tie the general election directly to the prime minister candidate. You'd be choosing a prime minister as much as the party, and if the PM goes, so does the government, and a new election must be called.

That would have two positives: it would remove this awkward and all too common situation of unelected governments. And it would possibly increase the stability of government, as an internal coup can not dislodge the current PM without triggering an election that will tend to hurt the governing party and those members who pushed the PM away.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: The political parties have every right to make up their own rules for selecting their leaders but that does not mean that their rules cannot by definition contravene the spirit of the Constitution. Binding Diet members to obey the wishes of its members is one of them and grounds for the electorate to reject them at the ballot box. Calling them private parties does not change the fact. (Actually, they are “public” in many significant ways. The laws of the land have collectively formalized a very public role form them and even conferred public subsidies, which only the Japanese Communist Party has had the gumptions (and party member support) to reject. But this story would lead us into a slightly different tangent.)

I’m not worried about the DPJ rules, nor do I think that they are the bee’s knees. And all governments (you mean prime ministers?) become “unelected” over time. I’ve merely pointed out that the DPJ rules make sense, most significantly constitution-wise. Tying the tenure of the Diet members (lower house only?) to a prime minister who is not directly elected is a direct-democracy/representative democracy hybrid that must have its own pros and cons. Since the massive constitutional amendment required is not going to happen, I don’t see that it’s worth thinking the problem through.

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