During the chaotic year of 2020, many Americans can be forgiven for missing a recent transition of power in Japan, but it represents a worrying case of democratic erosion with lessons for our own democracy. Citing the resurgence of his colitis, Shinzo Abe announced his resignation from the office of Prime Minister of Japan on August 28th(1). As Americans, we would naturally assume that the successor of such a powerful office would be their equivalent of the position of vice president, someone who was elected alongside the political leader in a previous election. However, due to the parliamentary nature of Japanese politics, Abe’s successor was much less certain, as it would be decided by a vote held among the center-right Liberal Democratic Party, Abe’s ruling party, and an ever-dominant force in Japanese politics. After around two weeks of political maneuvering between various factions in the LDP, three candidates emerged: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, LDP Policy Chief Fumio Kushida, and Shigeru Ishiba. On September 1st, 2020, the LDP’s general council decided to invoke their right to restrict the voting franchise to the LDP’s members in the Diet and a few selected regional representatives for the leadership election, a total of 534 votes(2). A few days later, on September 14th, Yoshihide Suga was elected leader of the LDP with 377/534 votes(3). Yet, when considering the fact that only 3% of the public supported Suga as a potential new Prime Minister in June and seemed to support the candidacy of Ishiba(somewhere around 34%)(4), can we truly consider his election legitimate? Did the gatekeeping function go too far in Japan, and instead of protecting democracy, did it harm it? What allowed the new Prime Minister of Japan to only need 377 votes to lead one of the largest democracies in the world at 127 million people?
In “How Democracies Die”, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that “the real protection against would-be authoritarians has not been American’s firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gatekeepers-our political parties.”(5) In America, the parties have increasingly lost their power to gatekeep thanks to reforms to the primary system, and Levitsky and Ziblatt do make some rather convincing arguments that this is one of the major reasons why Trump was able to co-opt the Republican Party. In Japan, the parties, or in this case solely the LDP, are still gatekeepers with their power mostly unchecked, as can be seen in the aforementioned appointment of Yoshihide Suga. In addition to restricting the vote to only members of parliament and selected individuals, they also performed two other troubling gatekeeping actions. Firstly, in addition to restricting who could vote, it also ignored the opinions of the public themselves, as can be seen by their decision to ignore the available public opinion polling data that showed the lack of public support for his candidacy. Secondly, not only did they ignore the opinions of the public, but the LDP party establishment also decisively intervened in the electoral process, as a number of prominent factions endorsed his candidacy before he had even publicly announced it.(6) And even more troublingly than America, there was no element of mass democracy afterward. In America, even if the candidates were chosen in smoke-shrouded rooms, they were at least forced to compete in the public sphere for the presidency. In Japan, the general vote among the entire Diet is almost always nothing more than a formality, thanks to the LDP’s hegemonic grasp on political power. Can the gatekeepers really protect democratic health in such a unipolar party system? Or, like in this case, are they the eroders?
Perhaps, we should compare Japan to another parliamentary democracy, such as Britain for example. In the Conservative Party leadership election of 2016 following David Cameron’s resignation from the Prime Ministership, there were a vast number of candidates, including the eventual winner Theresa May. At first, the electoral process was a round-based series of ballots among the sitting MP’s of the conservative party, where they gradually eliminated the lowest-performing candidate. Compared to the Japanese leadership election process, it gradually created consensus candidates, rather than the Japanese system which so overwhelmingly backed a single candidate without even attempting to form a consensus. Once the election was down to the final two candidates, the franchise extended to any voting member of the Conservative Party, vastly more expansive and democratic than the LDP leadership’s decision to only allow sitting MPs. Of course, as we know historically, it never needed to come to this as the final candidate withdrew his candidacy, paving the way for Theresa May to take the reigns of the Conservative Party and thus the nation(7). Of course, unlike Japan, Theresa May wasn’t required to submit to a general vote among the entire parliament, so there are some arguments to be made that the gatekeeping process wasn’t moderated by the democratic influence of multi-party competition. But the fact that the expanded franchise was even considered(even if ultimately made redundant) marks it as a significantly more democratic form of gatekeeping.
In conclusion, I argue that the election of Yoshihide Suga represents a pivotal turning point for Japanese democracy, or at the very least, it points to the potentially worrisome use of gatekeeping to erode democratic norms, regardless of its effects in protecting from potential autocrats. The case of Japan as compared to the United States and Britain points to the possibility that multi-party competition is essential to preventing the gatekeeping process from becoming another tool of democratic erosion, rather than a potential solution. In order to prevent such a possibility, the gatekeeping process must be made responsive to the public rather than strictly used as a roadblock to the potential autocrat through the exclusive aegis of shadowy party elites. While many Americans began to idealize the parliamentary system in the wake of the 2016 election, we must be ever mindful that the parliamentary system seems rather susceptible to this type of undemocratic gatekeeping.
5: Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How democracies die. New York: Broadway Books.