Electoral Reform and the Costs of Personal Support in Japan

By Carlson, Matthew M. | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Electoral Reform and the Costs of Personal Support in Japan


Carlson, Matthew M., Journal of East Asian Studies


How does the choice of electoral rules affect politicians' incentives to campaign on the basis of personalized support? This article examines to what extent the adoption of new electoral and campaign finance rules affects the incentive of politicians in Japan's Liberal Democratic Party to rely on personal support organizations called koenkai. The core of the analysis utilizes newly collected campaign finance data. The empirical analyses confirm a considerable weakening in the number of koenkai across systems as well as a decreased need for politicians to spend money in the proportional representation tier. These results highlight the importance of previous organizational legacies as well as the efforts of political actors to mitigate the effects of rule change on their election and reelection prospects.

KEYWORDS: Japan, LDP, campaign finance, electoral reform, campaigns, personal vote, incumbency, rational choice, institutionalism, mixed-member electoral systems

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Mixed-member electoral systems have been adopted in Latin America (e.g., Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia), in postcommunist countries (e.g., Russia, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania), and in the established democracies of New Zealand, Italy, and Japan. These cases of reform have inspired widespread interest in the challenges of institutional design and the political consequences of mixed electoral systems. In this article, I offer a detailed examination of a significant informal organization associated with Japanese election campaigns: the koenkai, which refers to "the use of a mass-membership organization with the function of organizing large numbers of the general electorate" on behalf of a particular politician. (1) Few scholars have focused on the fate of koenkai in Japanese elections, which is lamentable for both theoretical and practical reasons. On a theoretical level, a greater comprehension of the koenkai is relevant for comprehending the effects of mixed rules on the salient relationships between constituents and their members in a democratic system. On a practical level, an increasing number of citizens elect their representatives under mixed rules, and many other countries are considering electoral reform. The choice of electoral rules warrants critical attention, particularly as it may have significant effects on a country's party and political systems.

The choice of electoral rules has been shown to affect party systems in various ways, such as shaping the number of political parties, (2) influencing how parties and candidates place themselves on an ideological spectrum, (3) or determining the extent that politicians find it necessary to cultivate a personal vote. (4) With emphasis on the case of Japan, I examine how electoral rules shape incentives to cultivate a personal vote through the use of personal support groups as a main vote-gathering strategy for defeating competitors. Electoral systems that encourage large parties to nominate multiple candidates in each constituency are argued to generate strong incentives for candidates to rely upon a personal vote, such as the use of support groups, in order to distinguish themselves from other intraparty and interparty competitors. (5) Yet precisely what happens to the personal vote and support groups when an electoral system is changed? A study of the evolution of koenkai in Japan affords an excellent opportunity to consider how politicians and informal organizations adapt when a new mixed-member electoral system is introduced.

I examine the evolution and incentives shaping the use of koenkai in Japan with newly collected data on the number of registered koenkai and annual expenditure data for Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians. Because many of the previous studies have relied on interview and case studies, the use of this data is valuable in considering additional consequences of Japan's new electoral system, including the impact of campaign finance reforms. …

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