Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Infrastructure as the Magnet of Power: Explaining Why Japanese Legislators Left and Returned to the LDP

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Infrastructure as the Magnet of Power: Explaining Why Japanese Legislators Left and Returned to the LDP

Article excerpt

By examining party-switching decisions among members of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), this article shows how distributive policy programs exclusively available to the governing party attract incumbents to the party in power. In a stable electoral environment where the government party is likely to stay in power, legislators elected from infrastructure-poor constituencies are effectively tied to the party. However, when the party's electoral prospects are uncertain, legislators behave more sincerely and switch parties to match their policy preferences. It is also found that defectors elected from infrastructure-poor constituencies tended to return to the LDP once the party installed a stable surplus coalition.

KEYWORDS: Japan, Liberal Democratic Party, party switching, partisan realignment, infrastructure investment


Doro izu seiji. Seiji izu doro. [The road is politics. Politics is the road.]

--Noboru Takeshita (prime minister of Japan, 1987-1989)

This article explains party switching during the 1990s in Japan, an established democracy under the prolonged control of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). (1) Using infrastructure endowment and preferences for reform as key explanatory variables, I examine what environmental parameters facilitated and deterred legislators' party-switching decisions in the wake of political turbulence during Japan's lost decade (1990-2000).

The first of the two goals of this article is to show that endowment of infrastructure in the constituencies generated an important aspect of bipartisan competition in Japan through an iterative process of electoral competition and party switching. As the Diet debate on the gasoline tax rate in spring 2008 reminds observers of Japanese politics, the road budget represents a salient schism between the LDP-Komei coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led opposition. While the DPJ has long insisted that infrastructure investment spending be curtailed, the LDP's old guards have expended efforts to protect the semipermanent "provisionary" tax rates to finance the road budget. (2) This article provides a clue to this schism by showing that the constituency endowment of road infrastructure affected the legislators' choice of parties in the 1990s.

The second goal is to present an electoral theory of infrastructure investment, which has been misunderstood in the existing literature of pork barrel politics. As previous studies of party switching have already shown (e.g., Desposato 2006; Desposato and Scheiner 2009), this article emphasizes the importance of perks available to members of ruling versus nonruling political parties. However, attention is given here to the irreversible nature of infrastructure investment, which has been mis-specified in the literature of pork barrel politics. The existing studies have analyzed the inflow of pork barrel projects as measured in the annual size of investment budget, but this specification ignores the lumpy nature of economic infrastructure investment. The intuition is that the economic benefit of extra infrastructure investment is large when its endowment is scarce, but it diminishes as voters have ready access to highways, bullet trains, and other kinds of infrastructure that serve as local public goods. In the Japanese example, when incumbents represent constituencies awaiting infrastructure investment, the politician garners a larger electoral advantage by being affiliated with the party in power, and this is especially the case when the LDP is highly likely to stay in power after the next election. In this situation, the group of incumbents elected by infrastructure-rich constituencies could afford the cost of leaving the party, whereas incumbents from infrastructure-poor constituencies tended to stay. In contrast, when the national-level election prospects were uncertain--that is, when the outlook for the LDP's majority control appeared unpredictable--legislators switched parties in accordance with their policy preferences regardless of the constituencies' need for infrastructure investment. …

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