Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Electoral Consequences of Municipal Mergers

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Electoral Consequences of Municipal Mergers

Article excerpt

The dominance of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was long buttressed by the existence of a strong political support base in the rural areas led by local politicians who worked on behalf of national LDP politicians seeking reelection. In recent years, municipal mergers have drastically weakened the LDP's support base by reducing the number of local politicians and redrawing electoral district boundaries. Surprisingly, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), could not take full advantage of: these new institutional arrangements. Instead, local politicians have become more independent of both major parties. As a result, at a time of increasing numbers of floating voters, neither of Japan's two major parties has a reliable local base across the country. To succeed, both parties must pay attention to the changing needs of the increasingly independent--and very often still rural--localities. KEYWORDS: municipal mergers, local elections, electoral redistricting, independent voters, Democratic Party of Japan, Liberal Democratic Party

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FOR MANY SCHOLARS AND OBSERVERS OF JAPANESE POLITICS, THE 2009 defeat of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) signaled a definitive change in the electoral landscape. Since the change in electoral rules in 1994, scholars of electoral reform predicted the waning of particularistic and personal politics that flourished under the old multimember electoral system, and a shift toward more programmatic, partisan politics in sync with the incentives created by the new single-member districts (Cox, Rosenbluth, and Thies 1999; Hirano 2006; Rosenbluth and Thies 2010). As Kenneth McElwain argues in this issue, such a shift has occurred in Japan's lower house, for which the electoral rules changed and for which malapportionment, the other culprit that gave a disproportionately large number of votes to the LDP's support base in the rural areas, has been greatly reduced (McElwain 2012). What has been unexpected, however, is the continued influence of rural voters who have loosened their ties to the LDP but who, as recent elections would suggest, are now acting like swing voters.

In the 2000s, both the LDP and the current party in power, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), have courted rural voters in both upper house and lower house elections. Given the improved but still significant malapportionment favoring rural voters (1) and the incentives created by majoritarian electoral rules, efforts by both parties to court rural voters (i.e., the median voter) may be expected. However, this structural alignment alone does not adequately explain the now less partisan behavior of rural voters and local politicians who once stood firmly behind the LDE Electoral reform and structural alignment also cannot fully explain the apparent constraints on policy change, some of which are described in other articles in this issue (Scheiner 2012; Lipscy 2012).

In contrast, I argue in this article that redistricting and greater local autonomy, especially in rural areas, have cut against the electoral incentives for national politicians, eroding once strong patron-client ties between national and local politicians while creating a more independent rural base. Consequently, local politicians still campaigning under multimember rules also now have increasing leverage vis-a-vis central politicians, contributing to paralysis in policy change.

I focus here on a significant but largely unnoticed institutional reform--municipal mergers--that has resulted in a form of redistricting whereby the boundaries of electoral districts are redrawn according to new administrative boundaries. Municipal mergers in Japan, like redistricting in many democratic countries, were an institutional answer to structural changes in the political economy, including depopulation, aging, and fiscal decline. Smaller municipalities without a stable source of income had become particularly costly to maintain. …

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