Friday, September 05, 2008

The LDP Presidential Election: Do the Locals Already Own the Process? And What of It?

The following memo addresses a phenomenon that deserves more attention. Perhaps Japanese political scientists and observers already cover this issue extensively and I’m the only one who doesn’t know. Either way, I welcome, as always, your thoughts on this.

The prefectural LDP chapters are complaining that they’re being undercounted in the haste to elect the new LDP president. Younger Diet members sided with the local chapters to no avail. They have nothing to worry about. There’ll be another day to fight that fight; in the meantime, the local chapters already have a much larger voice in the process than mere numbers show, transforming the LDP in the process. Let me explain:

In a LDP presidential election, Diet members—currently 387—each has one vote. Normally, the 47 prefectural chapters are allocated a total of 300 votes (3 each for a subtotal of 141 plus 159 allocated in proportion to the number of party members* in each chapter), which are awarded to the candidates chapter-by-chapter by a proportional form of popular vote among the local party members. When no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff vote by the Diet members is held between the top two vote-getters. However, when the Presidency is vacated before the end of the term, the joint plenary of Diet members has the choice of calling an emergency and electing a new President by a vote of all Diet members—currently 387—and 3 representatives each from the local chapters—141, as we already saw. The joint plenary chose to do just that, to the chagrin of younger Diet members who wanted to follow normal procedures in accordance with the wishes of local chapters, giving them the full 300 votes.

It is up to the chapters to determine how to choose their representatives. In view of the emergency call—in this case the need to hold a quick election to summon an extraordinary Diet session—the expectation is that the local leadership council would choose the representatives; in fact, 46 out of the 47 chapters have decided to hold popular votes anyway, and the lone exception is expected to reconsider its decision.

This is significant. Back in 2001, Junichiro Koizumi rode a landslide victory in the party-member preliminaries to an upset victory over heavily favored ex-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The current election rules are the recognition of the importance of the party rank-and-file. In a situation eerily similar to the current one, the 2007 election to replace Shinzo Abe after he gave up power less than a year into his first and only term saw a large number of chapters holding popular votes to determine their representatives. Several Diet members agreed to cast their own votes in line with the popular vote in their electoral districts, enhancing the clout of the local rank-and-file. This is possible because the results of the popular vote are disclosed before the Diet members cast their vote. Mr. Aso threw a scare into the leadership-favorite Yasuo Fukuda by winning 65 out of the 141 local votes. He fared much worse with the Diet member vote (132-254), though it was still impressive, considering that all the factions except his own had endorsed Mr. Fukuda. If all the chapters had held popular votes, Mr. Aso might actually have won the popular vote, where he did particularly well. This in turn would surely have thrown the outcome 386 Diet member votes into doubt as well.

This time around, most, likely all, of the chapters will hold popular votes, making a mockery of the “emergency” rule. It is likely that the rule will be changed posthaste to reflect this new reality, further enhancing the power of the chapters.

It won’t matter much in this election; Mr. Aso is a virtual shoo-in, no matter what the rules. The leadership in half of the chapters are already reportedly supporting him and he is if anything even more popular with the foot-soldiers. The last election shows that he has substantial support among the Diet members as well. But we can do a thought experiment. In the unlikely event that say, Nobuteru Ishihara tops the popular vote, it will be difficult for the Diet members to deny him victory in a runoff—there are now at least four credible candidates whose names are likely to be on the ballots on the 22 September; Mr. Aso is the only one who has a chance of winning on the first ballot—that excludes chapter representatives. In other words, local party members have become the virtual determinant of the LDP President. A subsequent rule change will only formalize the shift.

This has important implications for the political process in general. First of all, it all but eliminates the already dwindling power of the factions to determine the LDP leadership. Second, it strengthens the already considerable power of the LDP president over the other LDP Diet members. Last but not least, it amplifies the voices of local, often vested interests. I believe that these three factors all work to rejuvenate the LDP in the political game. Many factions are unlikely to endorse any candidate this time around. We already saw Mr. Koizumi impose his will over Post Office privatization. In an early era, Mr. Abe would not have been allowed to linger after his disastrous 207 campaign. An empowered rank-and-file will, among other things, help replace the loss of the post office electoral machine and the weakening of the construction businesses. However, I am far less sure of the impact on statecraft, particularly of the last point.

* “Party members” include members of two affiliate organizations.

Ross has some startling information on Fukuda’s poll numbers. I wonder if he’ll let me blog it, if he’s not saving it for clients.

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