Between Pork and People: An Analysis of the Policy Balance in the LDP's Election Platforms

By Winkler, Christian G. | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Between Pork and People: An Analysis of the Policy Balance in the LDP's Election Platforms


Winkler, Christian G., Journal of East Asian Studies


In this article I examine changes in the election manifestos of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party. While the existing literature agrees that the LDP's policy platform has changed considerably since the introduction of the new election system in the 1990s, their analysis focuses on material policies such as pork barrel and welfare. Postmaterialist policies such as environmental protection have hardly been discussed, even though they have been relevant since pollution swept progressive mayors into power in the 1960s. I examine election platforms from 1956 through 2013, and argue that the LDP has carefully adjusted its policy mix by putting a greater emphasis on postmaterialist policies. My analysis also shows that while electoral reform has had an impact on the policy balance between postmaterialist and materialist policies as well as clientelist and programmatic policies, these changes are not linear, but vary from decade to decade. Keywords: Japanese politics, party politics, LDP, postmaterialism, CMP, manifesto research

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IN DECEMBER 2012, JAPAN'S LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY (LDP) celebrated a triumphant victory in the House of Representatives (HoR) elections, winning 294 out of 480 contested seats. Since the party's foundation in 1955 nineteen HoR elections have been held; in fourteen the LDP has managed to win an absolute majority of seats. With the exception of the previous HoR election in 2009, it had never won less than 45 percent of HoR seats. This remarkable dominance has always fascinated political scientists who sought to explain how the LDP has been so successful in appealing to voters. During the period of the LDP's single-party rule from 1955 through 1993, organized voters residing primarily in rural areas were more important than the votes of the underrepresented urban electorate and therefore the party successfully employed clientelist redistribution schemes to cater to the former.

Following considerable demographic, economic, and institutional change--in particular the 1994 electoral reform--urban voters became more important. The standard interpretation cites that the LDP reacted by adjusting its policy mix, emphasizing materialist, but programmatic--as opposed to clientelist--policies to reach these urban voters. This explanation ignores another significant change that has happened since the 1970s, namely, the rise of postmaterialism. (1) In spite of the undeniable importance of postmaterialist policies such as environmental protection, they are not discussed in the literature. This is curious, seeing how the LDP's policy appeals should have reflected such a fundamental shift in public preferences toward postmaterialism at least to some degree.

In this article, I argue that postmaterialist policy appeals have indeed become an important aspect of the party's election manifestos. While this is especially true for the post-electoral reform period, postmaterialist policy appeals had already found their way into LDP manifestos as early as the late 1960s. This study shows that while electoral reform is important in explaining these shifts, the focus on comparing pre- and postreform periods marginalizes significant changes that have occurred independently from demographic, economic, and institutional change. The analysis of LDP manifestos since 1956 shows that changes are not necessarily linear, and considerable variations can be observed within both the pre-electoral reform and postreform periods. In the context of comparative manifesto research, this analysis also enables us to paint a precise picture of a major party's policy platform that goes beyond changes on a simplistic left-right scale. In that sense, this research can also serve as a foundation for future comparative policy analysis.

Literature Review

As mentioned above, the existing literature focuses on materialist policy appeals, first clientelist and second programmatic. The former centers around the acquisition of votes in exchange for material kickbacks provided by the vote recipient, while the latter are "universally distributed, collective-goods policy programs" (Scheiner 2006, 14). …

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