Why Extend the Term Limit for LDP President?
Top LDP officers recently approved a rule change that would allow Prime Minister Abe an unprecedented nine years at the helm of the ruling party. Political analyst Katsuyuki Yakushiji puts that decision in perspective.
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At a high-level meeting this past October, executives of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party decided to extend the maximum tenure for LDP presidents from the current six years (two three-year terms) to nine years (three three-year terms). With the LDP holding a decisive majority in the Diet, the party president is guaranteed the position of prime minister. Under the new rules, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, elected LDP president in 2012, could conceivably remain in office until September 2021 and become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
Despite these implications for the highest office in the country, the LDP rule change has met with little dissent or even serious debate within the party. Perhaps the reason for this is that Abe’s critics and rivals within the LDP understand just how irrelevant such changes really are in Japan’s current political culture.
Term Limits in International Perspective
Like most other parliamentary democracies, Japan has no set term of office for the prime minister per se. Being designated by and responsible to the Diet, the prime minister can stay in power as long as he or she has the support of the House of Representatives. Only an electoral upset that shifts the balance of power in that chamber or a vote of no confidence can force the prime minister to step down. From a legal standpoint, there is nothing to prevent one person from monopolizing the post of prime minister until his or her death.
In Japan’s case, the LDP’s internal bylaws place de facto limits on the tenure of a prime minister. But this practice is by no means the rule in other developed countries.
The Conservative Party of Britain imposes no cap on the tenure of its leader. The same is true for Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party, Canada’s Liberal Party, and Italy’s Democratic Party. In these countries, neither national law nor the bylaws of the ruling party limit the number of years one can serve as prime minister.
The Reality of Japan's Revolving Door
The LDP initially established a two-year term of office for the party presidency with no provisions on the number of terms one could serve. In 1960, the party added a rule explicitly stating that the president may be reelected; Hayato Ikeda was reelected twice and Eisaku Sato three times. In 1980, though, the party instituted a maximum limit of two consecutive terms. While the term of office was extended to three years in 2003, the two-term rule remained intact, setting an upper limit on the number of years one person can serve continuously as Japanese prime minister. The tenure of the head of government was thus institutionally restricted by internal party rules.
In reality, however, these rules have rarely been a limiting factor. Since the LDP was formed in 1955, only two of its leaders have served out their full terms: Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982–87) and Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2001–6). The vast majority have resigned for political reasons before their term of office ended. This applies even to Eisaku Sato, who held office for close to eight years (1964–72) before the party adopted term limits. In fact, since the end of World War II, Japan has had 31 prime ministers, including Abe, whose average tenure has been 2.3 years.
To put this in perspective, Britain has had just 15 prime ministers during the same period, for an average of 4.7 years in office. Canada has had 13 prime ministers averaging 5 years each, and Germany has had 8 chancellors with an average tenure of 8.8 years. Even in famously unstable Italy, cabinets enjoy a slightly longer lifespan (2.5 years) than in Japan. Heads of state also enjoy greater longevity in the United States and France, where the term of the president is set by law. The leaders of the world’s other major democracies barely have a chance to learn the Japanese prime minister’s name before a new one takes his place. Some, such as Sosuke Uno (June–August 1989) and Tsutomu Hata (Aprill–June 1994), have lasted only a few months. Clearly, this is not the fault of the LDP’s four- to six-year limit. What is it about Japanese politics that forces such frequent changes at the top?
Turnover in the Era of Factionalism
To analyze the underlying dynamic, we need to divide postwar politics into two broad periods. In the first, from 1955 to the early 1990s, the LDP had a virtual lock on power. The biggest opposition force during this era was the Japan Socialist Party, which had no serious hope of toppling the LDP and taking the helm. Accordingly, whoever achieved the position of LDP president was guaranteed the post of prime minister. And the selection of the party president was driven solely by internal considerations—specifically, the balance of power among the party’s competing factions. Within about a year of electing a new leader, these warring factions would be maneuvering and scheming to replace him as soon as possible. The fact is that most LDP politicians were more preoccupied with these internal power struggles than they were with creating effective policies for the country.
Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (1957l–60), himself forced to resign over the turmoil that attended the 1960 revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty, deplored the relative lack of continuity in Japan’s political leadership. Arguing that the party president’s two-year term of office would force a change of prime minister every two years, he advocated a four-year term.
In 1971, the LDP responded to such pressure by lengthening the term of office from two to three years. By the mid-seventies, however, faction bosses Takeo Fukuda and Masayoshi Ohira were tired of waiting for their turn. They protested that three-year terms were too long and that they ran counter to the “tempo of the times.” Finally, in 1977, the rules were amended again, and the term shortened to two years. Fukuda, having finally made it to the top spot, though, quickly changed his tune, insisting that the government could accomplish nothing with the ruling party engaged in a major fracas once every two years. He argued that a presidential term of 5 or even 10 years was needed to get things done.
But the fact is that not one LDP president during this time served out two full terms of office. That being the case, it is hard to see how the length of the term itself would make any difference. As Fukuda’s example demonstrates, the clash of opinion over the length of a presidential term was merely an extension of the factional power struggles going on within the LDP.
Rule by Public Opinion Poll
Japanese politics entered a new era in 1993, when infighting caused the LDP to fracture and fall from power for the first time. An even more fundamental change came with the electoral reforms of the mid-1990s, which replaced the lower house multiseat districts with single-seat constituencies and proportional representation.
Under the old multiseat system, several LDP candidates would typically be running in a single district, each candidate relying on resources from one of the LDP factions, as opposed to party headquarters. The factions competed fiercely with one another in these elections in order to boost their numbers in the Diet and maximize their chances of dominating party elections. It was often remarked that the LDP was not so much a single party as a collection of warring factions.
The switch to single-member constituencies altered this dynamic. With each party, including the LDP, fielding no more than one candidate per district, the endorsement of party headquarters began to carry far more weight than the support of a faction. Moreover, as the opposition gathered sufficient strength to challenge the LDP, the popularity of the ruling party’s top leader became an important factor determining the party’s electoral success. The LDP became increasingly preoccupied with the cabinet’s approval rating, a figure drawn from public opinion surveys carried out by the media.
This new dynamic applied not only to the LDP but also to the Democratic Party of Japan, which held power from 2009 to 2012. An unpopular prime minister threatened the election prospects of the candidates in each district and ultimately the party’s control of the Diet. Consequently, whenever the media published survey results indicating a substantial drop in the cabinet’s approval rating, elements within the ruling party would start agitating for a change in leadership. Since the second half of the 1990s, low approval ratings—or in some cases election setbacks—have forced early resignations again and again. One notable exception was Koizumi, who enjoyed an unusually and consistently high rate of support (around 50%).
In most cases, public approval starts out fairly high when a new prime minister takes office, only to take a nosedive as the economy flounders or political scandals unfold. The same problem afflicted Abe during his first stint as prime minister (2006l–7). In earlier years, the cabinet might have ridden out such criticism, but nowadays a sharp drop in support invariably sparks a media feeding frenzy, further eroding the cabinet’s image and making it difficult to recover. Some prime ministers have chosen to bow out early to avert a loss of seats in the Diet. A few have stood firm, only to be forced out after an electoral setback.
Breaking the Cycle?
This time around, Abe appears to have broken the cycle. The economic policies collectively known as Abenomics have at least succeeded in buoying stock prices, and voters are largely pleased with the prime minister’s hard line vis-à-vis China, backed up by a fortified alliance with the United States. After several harrowing years under the DPJ, they find the current atmosphere of stability reassuring. But how much longer will the prime minister’s fortunes last?
In a public statement explaining its decision, the LDP panel charged with reviewing party rules on the president’s term of office argued that the structural issues facing Japan, including those stemming from demographic aging and population decline, require long-range planning and policymaking. “Since strong leadership and a certain amount of time will be required to carry out the sort of bold reforms needed to meet these challenges, a stable administration is desirable.” Whatever else may have changed within the LDP, this propensity for facile rationalization has not.
Interestingly, the committee’s statement expressly notes that the recommended change “is only a revision of the rules governing the official term of office and does not guarantee the actual tenure of the president or the stability of the administration.”
As one LDP official put it, “However long we make the president’s term of office, if the LDP suffers a major setback in the next election, Prime Minister Abe will have no choice but to step down. And the economic outlook isn’t good. In other words, no one actually thinks an extension of the presidential term will enable Abe to stay in office for nine years.”
From its formation in 1955 through the 1980s, the LDP maintained its grip on the government despite constant internal feuding. But its base of support today is nowhere near as strong as it was back then. The ruling party can no longer afford to ignore the vicissitudes of public opinion. It will keep the current prime minister in power as long as his popularity holds. When the fickle public grows disillusioned, the party will replace him with someone new. This is the new reality dictating internal politics in the LDP.