Democracy Without Competition

Summary:  Why, even in the face of great dissatisfaction with the dominant party, has no opposition party been able to offer itself as a credible challenger in Japan?  Understanding such failure is important for many reasons, from its effect on Japanese economic policy to its implications for what facilitates democratic responsiveness more broadly.  The principal explanations for opposition party failure in Japan focus on the country’s culture and electoral system, but neither can explain, in particular, continued opposition failure over the past decade.  I argue that a far more plausible explanation rests on the predominance in Japan of clientelism, combined with a centralized government structure and electoral protection for groups that benefit from clientelism.  While my central case is Japan, my analysis is also comparative and I apply my framework cross-nationally.

Methodologies and Research Approach:  My analysis examines party competition cross-nationally, as well as cross-regionally within Japan.  Many of my findings are based on substantial quantitative analysis, including maximum likelihood estimation techniques such as multinomial probit analysis.  At the same time, my analysis is also founded on a year of field research in Japan, where I interviewed a large number of Japanese politicians and party staff members at both the national and local levels, and conducted a survey of members of the national House of Representatives.

Appendix:  To shorten the manuscript and keep it tightly focused, I cut many details and discussion of potential counter arguments and am putting them in this online appendix.  Much of my work is based on multivariate quantitative analysis, but most readers of this book are unlikely to be interested in technical aspects of the statistics, even if they are intrigued by the substantive results.  Therefore, I kept the substantive discussions of the quantitative work, but moved the tables and technical discussions of the multivariate analyses to the appendix.  Each chapter appendix link is listed below the relevant chapter summary below and there is also an Appendix Page (you can link here) as well.

Chapter Summaries
Introduction – The Puzzle of Party Competition Failure in Japan
Japanese party politics are a puzzle.  In 1955, the Liberal and Democratic Parties merged to form the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  The LDP’s precursors had dominated the Japanese government since the prewar period and the LDP’s formation meant that a single party was in control.  Given the seemingly incompatible personalities and policy positions—as well as intra-party antagonism—of those forming the LDP, many Japanese were skeptical of the new party’s ability to stay together.  But power proved to be impressive glue; the party remained largely intact for decades.  That power helped hold the party together is hardly shocking.  However, the LDP not only stayed together, but also warded off nearly every electoral challenge over the next five decades: Between 1955 and 2004 (the time of the writing of this book), the LDP was out of power for a total of ten months and 20 days.

Two points make this puzzle all the more difficult to understand.  First, Japan is a democracy.  Citizens maintain all the usual civil liberties, and non-LDP parties contest elections, hoping to topple the LDP.  Second, and most troubling, the LDP is not popular.  As of the writing of this book, it had been over 40 years since the party received a majority of the vote in an election for the national House of Representatives.  During the 1990s, in the face of severe economic stagnation, party corruption, and seeming paralysis on the part of the LDP to do anything about such issues, displeasure with the party grew dramatically.  Nevertheless, no real challenge to the LDP was able to sustain itself.

This book attempts to make sense of this puzzle.


Chapter 1 – The Importance of Party Competition and a Model of Party Competition FailureChapter 1 examines party competition in a variety of recent democracies and offers a framework for understanding party competition failure.  Clientelism is at the heart of my explanation for opposition failure.  I argue that when clientelism is combined with centralized governmental structure and institutionalized protection of the beneficiaries of clientelist practices, new and opposition parties have a very low probability of successfully challenging the clientelist regime.

The continuation of one-party dominance in Japan goes against the recent trend sweeping much of the world.  At the same time that former communist and authoritarian regimes are overcoming their non-democratic legacies, one-party dominant regimes in long-time democracies are undergoing major changes, as their leading parties lose the grip on power they had held for decades.  As the 1990s opened, scholars were pointing to the existence of “uncommon democracies”—in particular, Italy and Japan—where one party had dominated the country’s politics, either as the majority party or a plurality one controlling the parliamentary pivot, throughout the bulk of the postwar period.  Yet, today, the center-right Christian Democratic Party (DC) in Italy has largely disintegrated.  Even in Mexico—often left out of discussions of one-party dominance because of questions over the degree to which Mexico has been democratic—the long-time ruling PRI, which dominated politics to a far greater degree than any party in Italy or Japan, has lost its firm grasp on power.  In 1993 and 1994, it seemed that the LDP would go the way of the DC.

Yet, since the 1993-94 period, even despite public approval ratings of the LDP-led government that often were quite low, the LDP has clearly been the dominant party in Japan, with a substantial advantage over its potential competitors.
Clientelism is the most important factor in my analysis.  In contrast to programmatic systems that focus on policy formation, clientelist parties create direct, personal bonds with voters, usually through material (side) payments.  The key distinction isprocedural.  Parties are not clientelist as long as they enact policies universally, applying to all members of a constituency, whether or not specific individuals supported or opposed the ruling party (Kitschelt, 2000).  Clientelism is common across many cases of ruling party dominance and opposition failure.  In programmatic systems, opposition failure like that in Japan is rare.  Clientelist systems’ emphasis on administrative infrastructure and bonds created through side payments places a burden on opposition parties, particularly new ones with little access to such benefits.  But new and opposition parties do make inroads in clientelist systems, as has been particularly clear in recent years in my primary shadow (or comparative) cases, Italy, Austria, and Mexico.

However, clientelism combined with centralized governmental structure and institutionalized protection of the beneficiaries of clientelism creates difficult-to-surmount obstacles for opposition parties.  Where this combination exists, opposition parties face great difficulty building local foundations and generating abundant pools of “quality” or experienced candidates and are limited in the number of geographical areas in which they can realistically compete.  Moreover, new parties in such systems run into sizeable obstacles to the development of their own party organizations and policy coherence.


Chapter 2 – Opposition Failure in Japan: Background and Explanations
Chapter 2 provides background on party competition failure in Japan and analyzes the literature used (unsuccessfully to this point) to explain such failure.
In particular because of the heavily clientelist system and economic stagnation, there is great voter anger in Japan.  More than ever, Japanese voters are interested in issues, yet turned off by politics (Pharr, 2000).  In the 1970s and 80s, 20-30 percent of the population reported having no partisan preference, but in the 1990s this rose to 40-50 percent (Tanaka and Nishizawa, 1997).  Led by LDP defectors, a non-LDP coalition did briefly come to power in 1993, but within a year the LDP regained control in a coalition government.  Since 1995 the LDP has regained the prime ministership and has not been in serious danger of losing power.

Scholars have offered many explanations for opposition failure in Japan.  Many point to the conservative, change-resistant culture of the Japanese as a factor maintaining the LDP’s hegemony.  But, such theories ignore the fact that, in contrast to high support in the past, only about 20 percent of the total electorate (i.e., including non-voters) votes for the LDP.  Other scholars focus on Japan’s single non-transferable vote in multi-member district (SNTV/MMD) electoral system, which helped fragment the opposition and led it to divide the vote of its supporters inefficiently.  Yet, with the birth of a new electoral system in 1994, these problems are vastly reduced.

In short, existing theories do not explain the continued failure of Japan’s opposition.  For this reason, I offer a different type of explanation, which focuses on the combination of clientelism, centralized governmental structure and institutionalized protection of clientelism’s beneficiaries.

Chapter 2 Appendix


Chapter 3 – Clientelism and Its Determinants
Chapter 3 examines the shape clientelism takes in Japan and the causes of the Japanese system of clientelism.
The chapter opens by considering the causes of clientelism from a comparative perspective, and then considers clientelism in Japan specifically.  For years, many have held Japan’s SNTV/MMD electoral system responsible for the heavy emphasis in the country on clientelist practices.  I argue that, in Japan, SNTV/MMD certainly played an important role in reinforcing clientelist linkages, but clientelism was originally a result of other factors, especially the internal mobilization of the country’s first parties (i.e., formed by elites within the state apparatus) and the organization of (especially rural) landholding.  Using secondary sources and quantitative analysis of voter attitudes, I indicate that, in the postwar era, SNTV/MMD contributed substantially to new political arrangements that held clientelism at their core, but electoral system arguments are not sufficient to explain Japanese clientelism.  The electoral system was utilized throughout the country, but the levels of clientelism varied widely, according to social structure, local financial dependence on the central government, and political economy.

Chapter 3 Appendix A (cutting for space reasons)
Chapter 3 Appendix B (correlates of support for clientelism)


Chapter 4 – The Impact of Clientelism and Centralized Government Financial Structure: Comparative Analysis
A defining feature of Japanese politics is the combination of clientelism and a centralized financial structure.  Where a political system is clientelist and centralized—where local politicians must rely on the financial graces of the central government to do their job—parties that are not strong at the national level will have difficulty winning subnational office, and national ruling parties will hold a near monopoly on local power across most of the country.  To investigate the combined impact of clientelism and centralization, Chapter 4 examines different combinations of citizen-politician linkage (whether programmatic or clientelist) and financial centralization and the electoral outcomes associated with them in local elections in Germany, Brazil, the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Austria, and Mexico.

The combination of clientelism and local dependence on the center creates very strong incentives for (1) ambitious local politicians—who rely on the image of being able to pull in money and projects from the center—to ally with the party controlling the purse strings at the national level (the ruling party), and (2) voters to cast ballots in local elections for such candidates.  Here I am pointing to “ambition” in Schlesinger’s (1966) sense of politicians who want a long and productive career in politics, and am not suggesting that politicians who affiliate with non-ruling parties are somehow unambitious.  And I am certainly not ignoring the fact that many candidates will choose non-ruling parties for other reasons, such as ideology.  But, in general, politicians who wish to increase their chances of winning an election, and win higher office in the future will have greater incentive to affiliate with the national ruling party.  Similarly, I am not suggesting that voters cast ballots only for local candidates affiliated with the ruling party.  Many voters have personal, ideological, or policy-based reasons for supporting other parties.  However, where voters have reason to value political connections to the central government, in general they will have a greater incentive to vote for politicians affiliated with the national ruling party.

In systems that combine clientelism and centralization of government resources, the national ruling party can use its resource edge to attract strong candidates for local office and substantial numbers of voters even when the party itself is not the most sincerely preferred option.  In Clientelist/Centralized systems, opposition parties find great difficulty attracting candidates and voters for local office.  And where they hold little strength at the local level, parties have difficulty building local party foundations and getting their message out.  They are left with a dearth of strong candidates to run in national level races, causing much greater difficulty in winning national level seats (see Chapter 6).

The argument here is not simply that politicians develop a core of loyal voters through constituency service and that members of a ruling party are advantaged because of the party’s access to state resources.  Rather, it is that the impact of access to resources varies dramatically depending on the type of system.  In programmatic systems, the impact is weaker.  In Clientelist/Decentralized cases, where access to subnational funding is important, local party power will vary widely across the country.  However, in Clientelist/Centralized cases, the national ruling party is not simply advantaged by its access to state resources, but is even able to use this access to gain a near monopoly on local power throughout the country.

Chapter 4 Appendix


Chapter 5 – Local Opposition Failure in Japan
Chapter 5 is the most important empirical chapter in the book, as it draws out the analysis from Chapter 4 out more fully and provides a more systematic analysis of the Japanese case.  The impact of the combination of clientelism and fiscal centralization is particularly potent in Japan.  Using cross regional and over-time comparisons within Japan (based on secondary sources, in-person interviews, and quantitative analysis), I show that the Japanese Clientelist/Centralized system has led to overwhelming subnational opposition party failure and LDP dominance throughout the postwar period.

Chapter 5 Appendix


Chapter 6 – National Level Opposition Failure: The Impact of Subnational Level Weakness
Chapter 6 demonstrates how subnational level weakness (described in Chapter 5) led to opposition party failure at the national level.

The 1990s and early 2000s were seen as a period of opportunity for a challenge to the LDP to arise.  Voters proved themselves more than willing to support the new opposition of the era.  The first new challenger, the New Frontier Party (NFP), fell just short of the LDP in proportional representation (PR) balloting in the 1996 House of Representatives (HR) election.  Similarly, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ran nearly even with the LDP in PR balloting in the 2000 HR race and even won more PR votes than the ruling party in 2003.  At the same time, the opposition won far fewer candidate-centered district races and was therefore unable to topple the LDP.

There were many changes in Japanese politics in the 1990s that ought to have benefited the opposition (see Chapter 2), but there was a clear constant that remained from the pre-1990 era: the Clientelist/Centralized system.  In a Clientelist/Centralized system, parties that are not strong at the national level have great difficulty winning local office.  In turn, parties that hold little strength at the local level have weak foundations and face difficulty getting their message out.

Perhaps most important, by not holding many local level offices, Japan’s opposition parties have had few experienced candidates that they could run for national office: When able to run an experienced candidate, the opposition was at least as successful in national level races as the LDP.  However, because of its failure in subnational races, the opposition had very few such candidates to run, and therefore was typically unable to compete with the LDP.

Chapter 6 Appendix A (cutting for space reasons)
Chapter 6 Appendix B (quality candidate/probit analysis)


Chapter 7 – Political Economy Changes and Their Impact on Party Systems:  Comparative Analysis
Nevertheless, the analysis in Chapters 4-6 is not sufficient from a cross-national perspective to explain opposition failure at the national level.  For example, new and opposition parties in Italy, another clientelist, fiscally centralized system, have become competitive and ended one-party dominance in recent years.

Chapter 7 examines how changes in the political economies of other former cases of opposition failure helped bring about changes in the party systems within them.  Backlash against clientelism has been central to new and opposition party success in recent years in Italy and Austria.  As Kitschelt (2000) argues, clientelism remains viable as long as it does not harm “productive” sectors of the economy.  But, in the 1980s and 1990s, economic globalization and increased costs of clientelism led to a rift between productive and unproductive segments of the economy in many countries with large public sectors.  In particular, opposition parties in Italy and Austria have found success using anti-clientelist appeals, decrying the use of state funds to prop up specific sectors.


Chapter 8 – Parallel Party Systems:  Political Economy Changes and the Limits to Anti-Clientelist Appeals in Japan
Chapter 8 demonstrates the existence in Japan of what I call two parallel party systems: a one-party dominant system in rural areas and a competitive system in urban areas.  The chapter then indicates how electoral rules protect the LDP’s base in the one-party dominant rural system and constrain the opposition’s capacity to cut seriously into LDP power.
After seeing the rise of an anti-clientelist backlash in Italy and Austria, and the accompanying success of previously uncompetitive parties in those countries (Chapter 7), the question becomes why no such backlash penetrated and found success in Japan.  In reality, there was a similar backlash, which did help Japan’s opposition, but it only occurred in particular parts of the country.  In Japan a divide emerged between groups that did and did not benefit from the clientelist system and the pork barrel and protections that went with it.  This division is most clearly evident in the differences between the urban and the rural areas of the country.

While certain depressed urban regions may also support clientelism, the simplest rule of thumb is that rural areas are supportive of the clientelist structure, as a result of their lower education and skill levels—making people there less flexible in the face of threatened changes in the labor market—as well as the inefficient agricultural sector’s general dependence on governmental subsidies and transfers of money for public works.  By and large, voters in urban areas appeared to oppose clientelism and the features accompanying it.  Indeed, in the 2000 and 2003 HR elections, the leading opposition party, the DPJ actively campaigned on cutting public works and, in general, attacking the pork-driven LDP economic policy.  The DPJ did extremely well in cities, especially in proportional representation races.

This chapter offers detailed empirical analysis of Japan’s urban-rural split.  Based on statistical analysis and interviews with Japanese politicians, I show that the LDP and its supporters held policy positions that championed the clientelist system and ran counter to views held by a large proportion of residents of urban areas.  In contrast, Japan’s new parties, such as the DPJ, and their supporters tended to favor chipping away at or eliminating the clientelist system.  This analysis indicates that urban areas were the prime battleground between the LDP and opposition parties, largely because of the presence of many urban voters who hold views antithetical to Japan’s clientelist system.

It also suggests that future prospects are bleak for opposition parties in areas (which make up a large proportion of HR seats) that are more supportive of clientelism.  In 1996-2003 Japan, the regions most supportive of the clientelist state also had sufficient political clout—in particular, in the number of seats they held and the way these seats were allocated—to prevent greater success by parties that campaigned against the clientelist system and the pork, protections, and regulations accompanying it.  Japan’s current electoral system, which was enacted in 1994, makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to mount a challenge to the LDP in the regions most supportive of clientelism. Because of the dominance of the single member district (SMD) tier in Japan’s mixed-member (part SMD and part PR) electoral system that also provides one-third of all seats to rural areas, the LDP is able to dominate the rural areas’ seats, despite receiving only around 50 percent of the rural vote.  As a result, party competition occurs in only about two-thirds of the country.  Given that the current opposition tends to win almost no seats in rural areas, even if it was hugely successful and took nearly 60 percent of non-rural seats, it would still have only about 40 percent of all the House of Representatives seats in the new SMD/PR system.

Chapter 8 Appendix A (cutting for space reasons)
Chapter 8 Appendix B (support for deregulation, statistical analysis)
Chapter 8 Appendix C (campaign platforms, factor analysis)
Chapter 8 Appendix D (factor analysis of voter positions)
Chapter 8 Appendix E (multinomial probit and multinomial logit analysis of vote choice)


Chapter 9 – The Problem of Organization and Coherence in Top-Down Party Formation
Chapter 9 examines the problems faced by Japan’s opposition parties in the 1990s as a result of their position as new parties formed from the top down.

Japan’s clientelist and centralized structure causes most new party formation to occur from the top down (which I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 5).  As a result, Japan’s new parties are typically (1) composed of only a few individuals, all defectors from the same party (e.g., the formation of new small parties in 1993, growing out of defections from the LDP), or (2) are made up of a number of politicians from various different pre-existing parties (e.g., the formation of the DPJ through the merger of other parties).  In (1), the party is too small to become strong.  In (2), the party has difficulty organizing its members and agreeing on policy positions.  Japan’s most competitive new parties of the 1990s were of type (2), with members coming from a number of different pre-existing parties.

Using interviews I conducted with local DPJ organizations, I demonstrate the troubles the DPJ has had locally organizing politicians, supporters, and voters who came from a variety of different parties.  Using my own poll of national level politicians, I show how members of different parties had very different impressions of the policy positions held by each group within the DPJ.  Finally, using public opinion surveys, I demonstrate how these difficulties harm the DPJ, as much of voters’ uneasiness with new parties is due to the lack of certainty of just what such parties stand for.  This is particularly burdensome for parties, such as the DPJ, that rely on the support of urban voters who place weight on parties’ policy positions.

Chapter 9 Appendix A (cutting for space reasons)
Chapter 9 Appendix B (party organization information and table)
Chapter 9 Appendix C (survey of politicians)
Chapter 9 Appendix D (analysis of the effect of “uncertainty”)


Chapter 10 – Conclusion: Democracy without Competition
Chapter 10 concludes and suggests the larger implications of my analysis for Japanese politics.

Ultimately, I am offering an explanation for why, in the face of great dissatisfaction, a party system can appear so unresponsive when greater responsiveness ought to improve the electoral fate of many of its parties.  Japanese democracy is a puzzle.  We typically conceive of democracy as based on competition.  One-party democracy is not supposed to happen.  My analysis seeks to go beyond description of Japanese campaign behavior and consider what components of democratic systems can impede the responsiveness of their parties and thereby threaten their overall performance.

The lack of party competition has been significant as it appears to have promoted policy immobility, even in the face of serious economic and political problems.  The fact that the LDP could maintain power despite—and possibly even because of—its immobility (which aided the very clientelism-benefiting groups that were protected by Japan’s SMD system) on major economic reform no doubt gave party leaders the sense that there was no electoral need for reform, even when there was a clearly perceived economic need.  Similarly, voters, pundits, and politicians regularly decried the frequently reported cases of politician corruption—often a direct result of the clientelist system—but LDP legislators rarely paid more than lip service to the issue.  While it is by no means clear that reforms by non-LDP alternatives would have aided economic recovery and helped eliminate corruption, greater party competition almost certainly would have made genuine attempts more likely.

I find that the combination of the type of politician-voter linkages (whether clientelist or programmatic), the level of governmental financial centralization, and the degree of electoral/institutional protection of specific groups explains opposition failure.  To be sure, Japan’s miracle economy played a big part in the failure of the opposition for many years.  Voters tend not to cast ballots against the party in power during such prosperity.  But continued one-party dominance even despite the bursting of the economic bubble indicates that economic success is hardly sufficient explanation for opposition failure.  Clientelism is an important continuity carrying over from the miracle economy era to the recent period of economic failure.  Combined with a centralized structure, clientelism has always made it difficult for the opposition to compete locally, thereby giving it weak local foundations and a thin pool of potential national level candidates.  A decade has passed since the bursting of the economic bubble, but this combination of factors continues to work against the opposition.

For years, economic growth allowed Japan to maintain a huge clientelist state, while not alienating those who needed no patronage.  Yet, with the collapse of the economic bubble, the situation has become a zero-sum game, where unproductive sectors are seen as a strain on the economy, and a drag on productive sectors.  In urban districts, where the clientelist system is far less rooted, opposition parties have campaigned successfully against the clientelist system.  Nevertheless, because rural areas—which hold a large proportion of voters who are clearly supportive of the clientelist system—cover at least one-third of all seats in the Lower House of parliament, the opposition has been unable to use anti-clientelist appeals to make serious electoral inroads.

The combination of clientelism and centralization also makes bottom-up party formation difficult, and, to develop, new parties must draw in politicians from existing parties.  Yet, the fact that new parties must depend on such defectors makes it difficult for them to develop broad-based and unified local organizations, and cleanly coordinate the various groups within them:  Japan’s new parties appear be a mishmash of conflicting groups and views, making it hard to know what each party stands for and increasing its problems attracting strong candidates and voters.

As long as Japan remains heavily clientelistic and financially centralized, the key to party success is the behavior of national politicians.  Clearly important everywhere, national elites are especially critical in Clientelist/Centralized systems.  In such systems, parties’ ability to develop local level strength depends upon their strength at the national level.  Without substantial national-level power, it is very difficult for parties to develop at the local level, so that top-down, elite-level party formation becomes the key to party development and success in Clientelist/Centralized systems.  Therefore, without a change to the fundamental structure of Japanese politics, elite defection from the ruling party is the opposition’s greatest hope for success.  But defection from the ruling party is fraught with difficulties: Politicians need exceedingly good reasons to leave the party in power and sufficient confidence in their ability to survive outside.

These factors make it extremely difficult for a full-scale voter revolt to occur in Japan, unless clientelist practices lose their popular support and/or institutions are altered to eliminate the electoral advantage offered to groups who benefit from and support the clientelist system.  Indeed, the Clientelist/Centralized structure need not be permanent and changes to the system are possible.  Various efforts are underway to decentralize finances in Japan.  Perhaps more important, open antipathy toward Japan’s clientelist practices has increased in recent years and is likely to grow in the future.  Undercutting the clientelist and/or centralized foundations of the Japanese system would generate greater willingness to support the opposition throughout the country and improve opposition party chances of recruiting strong candidates.  Despite these possibilities, as of 2004 the LDP still maintained numerous advantages because of the continued existence of clientelist and centralized foundations.

Chapter 10 Appendix


Work Cited in the Online Abstract
Kitschelt, Herbert.  2000.  “Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities.” Comparative Political Studies 33: 845-879.

Pharr, Susan J.  2000.  “Officials’ Misconduct and Public Distrust: Japan and the Trilateral Democracies.” In Susan J.  Pharr and Robert D.  Putnam (eds.), Disaffected Democracies.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schlesinger, Joseph.  1966.  Ambition and Politics: Political Careers in the United States.  Chicago: Rand McNally.
Tanaka, Aiji, and Yoshitaka Nishizawa.  1997.  “Critical Elections of Japan in the 1990s: Does the LDP’s Comeback in 1996 mean Voter Realignment or Dealignment?” Prepared for delivery at the XVIIth World Congress of International Political Science Association, in Seoul, Korea, August 17-21, 1997.

Additional References