Institutionally and practically speaking, countries such as modern-day Japan, as well as India up until the late 1980s, generally fall within the category of liberal democratic states. Yet, as Ozan Varol points out in his discussion of democratic backsliding, a key threat to democracy is a lack of turnover in government officials, which in the case of Japan and India (up until the late ‘80s) presents us with something of a quandary, as both were liberal democratic states in which one party was extremely dominant, to the point that opposition parties were almost never in power. Yet, in both cases, the ruling party never seems to have engaged in the sort of self-dealing that one might expect, and liberal democratic norms and procedures have broadly been upheld despite this virtual monopoly on executive power.
For most of its history, India has only ever had one party actually in power – the center-left Indian National Congress, or INC. In fact, it was only the political backlash that resulted from Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 suspension of the constitution in a “state of emergency” that managed to, for the first time, put a non-Congress candidate in the Prime Minister’s seat. And, even then, this ad-hoc coalition broke down within two years, returning Mrs. Gandhi to office until her assassination in 1984. It was not until 1989, after the assassination of Indira’s son Rajiv, that a non-Congress PM held office, and only for a little under a year. And only in 1996, with the accession of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the right-wing BJP to power did an opposition PM remain in power for more than a year. Japan has a very similar story, except that the ruling party (in their case, the center-right Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, has enjoyed dominance that continues today. With the exception of a few years in the 1990s, as well as the most recent (short-lived) government, Japan has been governed by the LDP more or less nonstop since 1955, with no other party seemingly being able to mount an effective challenge.
These highly non-competitive situations pose something of a quandary for those looking to evaluate the health of these democracies. The electoral procedures in these countries, broadly speaking, are devoid both of the kind of naked corruption that one might expect out of an election in a totalitarian state, as well as the softer manipulation described by Ozan Varol as “stealth authoritarianism.” Yet, when one looks at a chart of each country’s prime ministers, the results are scarcely distinguishable from a more openly-deficient democratic system such as the one in Mexico that gave the Institutional Revolutionary Party 71 years of uninterrupted power. Obviously, such relative stagnation in leadership is bound to lead to a very low level of turnover from government to government – a characteristic which, it is worth noting, Varol cites as one of the key threats to modern liberal democracy.
With such an overt monopoly on power, the natural expectation under the theory of self-dealing would be that the governing party would seek to aggrandize its own power, and work to make itself heavily entrenched within government, perhaps eventually paving the way for full-blown democratic backsliding. Yet this does not appear to have been the case in either country. The Polity IV database, for instance, codes India as remaining well within the limits of a democracy for the entirety of its history as an independent country, with only a slight two-point drop during the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. Japan’s record in this regard is even better – for every year from 1955 onward, it has received a +10 rating, indicating a full liberal democracy.
If it is not blatant electoral manipulation or eroded democratic institutions that is responsible, then there must be some other factor at play here that is ensuring a lack of competition on the national electoral level.
One important thing to note in both cases is that both the INC and LDP are regarded as being very much “big-tent” parties. In the INC’s case, its base of support has traditionally included everything from center-left neoliberals to outright socialists. Likewise, the LDP covers a broad spectrum ranging from moderate, center-left, pro-business conservatives to more fringe, nationalistic elements, some of whom even engage in outright war crimes denial. This broad base of support could be one potential reason for their exceptional ability to hold onto power; however, it does not explain why their opposition is unable to find a similarly wide constituency. Additionally, at least in the case of the Congress Party, some analysts have ascribed its power and longevity to the highly developed patronage networks it had in many areas of India. It was, in fact, the breakdown of these very networks that ultimately resulted in the effective collapse of the party’s monopoly on power beginning in the latter half of the 1980s.
This ultimately goes to show that mere electoral results are not necessarily a fair way to judge the health of a democracy, and that a single party can absolutely maintain power for a long period of time in a democratic system without there being obvious flaws or decay in the system itself. Even in systems that are structurally healthy, the very nature of certain parties can simply lend themselves to extended periods of control which, on the surface, might seem to be the product of extensive democratic backsliding.